Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Sex with Strangers
Also see Gil's review of Sideways Stories from Wayside School
Thirty-nine-year-old Olivia is a writer whose novel had disappointing sales. She now teaches but is on spring break at a bed and breakfast in rural Michigan to work on proofreading the draft of her second novel. While a major snowstorm rages outside, 28-year-old Ethan stumbles into the B&B. These two strangers quickly discover that finding each other may be just what they both need, to help deal with navigating through the neverending obstacles of public criticism and potential commercial failure while trying to constantly prove themselves. Olivia is fearful to let anyone even read her second novel, let alone attempt to get it published, as she doesn't want to get hurt again from bad reviews or low book sales. Ethan is a blogger who became a bestseller after boasting and bragging about having sex with a different woman, sometimes even more than one, each week for a year, but now wants to be taken seriously as a writer.
With the Internet out and no one else around, it seems that sex is the only thing to do, though Olivia does stress, "people come here to write, not have fun." But that doesn't stop the persuasive Ethan from talking his way into Olivia's pants, even though she keeps protesting about their age difference. But Sex with Strangers isn't just about sex and how opposites attract, it is about two people who want to prove that they are someone other than what they are perceived as, and how they both believe that what they are currently working on will prove that. While the play could be tightened up a bit, with a few scenes running a bit too long, Eason has created realistic characters while also providing plenty of twists and intrigue throughout. The play also makes us change our minds several times on just who is using whom.
Director Ron May has assembled a stellar cast and gifted creative partners, all delivering top-notch work. Under May's subtle direction, Heather Lee Harper and Tyler Eglen create realistic individuals, full of nuance. They also generate plenty of heat as a couple. Harper may appear at first to come off the best, since the part of Olivia is more the "victim" of the piece, which makes us immediately take her side and root for her success. But Eglen is just as good, especially in the second act, in showing the wounds he has, and his need to prove himself. Harper is exceptional at playing this wounded woman, afraid to trust others or even let other people in. May's direction has Harper constantly putting up barriers between Olivia and Ethan, including a great use of a pillow as a safety blanket. Yet Harper beautifully shows how Ethan's praise of Olivia's work draws her out of her funk and makes her realize that she may have the courage to face her demons after all.
Eglen has the right balance in portraying the arrogant but sincere Ethan. He is loud, rude, and forceful, yet full of charisma. Eglen makes us want to believe that Ethan truly wants to help Olivia, even though we know he did some "stupid shit" in the past, including his claim that he made up and bragged about his anonymous sex encounters. It's a tough part to play, yet Eglen succeeds, especially in the final scene, set a year later, where his portrayal shows a more grown-up Ethan.
Creative elements are superb, with Eric Beeck's exceptional set design including a rustic living room in a bed and breakfast and also a modern apartment in Chicago. Paul Black's lighting combines with Beeck's set elements to create appropriately shadowy nighttime scenes in act one as well as bright daylight ones in the second act, while Danny Chihuahua's costumes are character appropriate and smart in showing the age difference between the two, based on the clothes they wear. Pete Bish's sound design includes some excellent effects, including the continual buzz and drone of iPad and cell phone text and email notifications.
Full of witty dialogue, Eason's play is a love affair about writing and two people who love to write, while also tackling the topics of public personas verses private identities, intimacy, and ultimately discovering how to prove who you truly are. Stray Cat Theatre's production features honest portrayals of these realistic individuals, clear, precise direction and exceptional creative elements. While it could be tightened up a bit, Sex with Strangers is never predictable, always interesting, and a great first partnership for two of the best theatre companies in Phoenix that tackle and present challenging new works.
Sex with Strangers for Stray Cat Theatre / Arizona Theatre Company runs through October 11th, 2015, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street in Phoenix. This production will also play at ATC's Tucson location, at the Temple of Music & Art, from February 11 - 21, 2016. Tickets can be purchased at www.arizonatheatre.org or by calling (602) 256 6995. Information on upcoming Stray Cat Theatre productions can be found at www.straycattheatre.org.
Written by Laura Eason
Olivia: Heather Lee Harper*
*Member Actors Equity Association