There are likely many reasons that Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers—which opened at Renaissance Theatreworks this weekend–is one of the most produced American plays of the last three years. There’s the curiosity-piquing title, of course, an implied promise that is indeed fulfilled by several hot-and-bothered onstage seductions.
But the eroticism here not just a way of getting butts into seats, as the marketing folks say. It’s part of a deep dig into the nature of relationships and human nature itself—particularly the ways our seemingly secure ideas about them have been challenged in the social media age. It holds a mirror up to our fractured 21st-century selves, and lets us find our own way through the funhouse maze.
We first meet Olivia (Marti Gobel) as she is preparing to spend a quiet night working on her novel. She’s booked a few days at a sort of Bed & Breakfast, writer’s retreat, and doesn’t really mind that a snowstorm is raging outside. With a few deft strokes, Gobel (along with director Malory Metoxen) sketches the character traits that the play will fill in later. She meticulously sets up her “workspace”—including setting out a bottle of wine—in a way that suggests a ritual designed to fend off the uncertainty of a writer trying to get back in the game.
Into this superego world strides the Millennial id of Ethan (Nick Narcisi), a younger writer seeking—we assume—the same kind of solitude. As he expresses dismay at the lack of a Wi-Fi connection, we discover he and Olivia are very different kinds of writers. His blog—called “Sex with Strangers”—lives up to his title. It’s an X-rated chronicle of his efforts to sleep with a different woman every week for a year. He’s a social media sensation, with a half-million Twitter followers and a couple of books that have been on the New York Times Bestseller list for years.
The erotic dance that follows is much more complicated than a two-person La Ronde of attraction and discovery. As Eason’s savvy writing burrows in to reveal the details of two complex characters, they seem to fracture into uncertainty. Is Ethan the eager and sensitive writer who aspires to create something truly great, or is he still a club-hopping “bro” who trades stories of sexual exploits with his friends? Will Olivia hang on to the pure idea of creating “great literature,” or will she accept Ethan’s marketing-savvy advice and try to gain the Facebook era recognition that she desperately desires?
Metoxen and her two actors find just the way to keep the audience guessing. And the resulting story—which erupts into an electrifying penultimate scene that rivals the raw emotional power of Edward Albee—poses essential questions about who we are in this era of avatars, personas and alternate cyber-universes. I’m not sure why it took so long for Eason’s perceptive play to reach Milwaukee, but I’m glad Renaissance Theatreworks gave it the production it deserves.
Go See It: Renaissance Theatreworks at the Broadway Theatre Center (158 N. Broadway); Sex with Strangers, Oct. 20-Nov. 12, 2017.