I’m George Walker for WFIU Arts.
Saturday night I went to the Cardinal Stage Company’s production of Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers directed by Scott Weinstein. The next morning as I sat down to write about it, I got a thank you note from the company’s artistic director Kate Galvin. She encouraged me to talk about the play with friends and went on with a pregnantly challenging sentence, “Great theater asks big questions and sparks conversations.”
Caution, this review has some spoilers!
There are just two characters in Sex with Strangers. Ethan is a brash twenty-something writer on the make. He’s ridden a bet that he could bed a woman a week to blog fame and two bestselling books, but is Ethan secretly working on a serious novel. Olivia is an apparently satisfied college teacher approaching forty who’s first novel was so badly promoted that those who would like it didn’t buy it and those that did were mightily disappointed. Olivia is also working secretly on a novel.
The opening scene of Sex with Strangers is of cozy living room at a writers’ workshop in Michigan. Outside snow is falling, inside the high beamed room there’s a fire in the fireplace, a glass of wine on a table of books and a gentle cheeriness. It’s a scene of tranquility as a graceful Olivia sits on the couch reading. Pounding on the door is a bedraggled Ethan. He’s complaining about the snow and the roads. He’s cold, he’s tired, he’s hungry and quite rudely full of himself. At first, Olivia is really put off, but Ethan is an energetic, funny and persistent charmer with a bit of magic. The clincher is when he quotes from her novel, and he seduces the older woman. This doesn’t exactly lead to a big question, but it does spark conversation.
The next day we learn more about each of the writers. He’s read her book, twice. She’s never read any of his work and conveniently, enough connections to the net for computers and phones are still down. The energetic Ethan is both proud of his success and apologetic. He says that he wants to move past his blogs to an application that will feature new writers and a novel, but is currently stuck into the process of preparing his books for a film. The more placid Olivia is fascinated by the details of Ethan’s world and repulsed by their basis. There’s been very interesting growth in their relationship, quite worthy of conversation.
As they talk, Ethan is very assertive. Her novel must be republished on the net with the name of a new author and bio. She’s resistant, but with the net back up, the deed is done. Ethan is off to California for the casting of his film and Olivia is packing up to head back to her college teaching job. During the brief intermission, I took a walk to stretch my legs and when I came back, the entire set of the cozy retreat had been wheeled off and replaced with Olivia’s modestly upscale cramped New York apartment. People around me wanted to talk about the skillful and amazing transition.
As the lights come up Olivia is glowing with excitement. Following the net success of her earlier book, Ethan’s agent has accepted her new book and in fact successfully placed it with a prestigious publisher. Ethan would like to publish the book himself, and has canny words of wisdom about editors. Meanwhile, Olivia has actually read Ethan’s blogs and despite his protestations that he’s leaving Ethan Strange behind, she’s appalled and not convinced. Hash words are said, she insults him, his work and the person that he hopes to become. An angry and bruised Ethan storms out and in his rage, he publishes Olivia’s book himself. There’s a lot to talk about from this scene and the conversation can edge toward big questions.
In the finale, Ethan is coming back to New York from Hollywood and he’s visiting Olivia. Ethan’s pirating of her second novel mixed in with the story of the anonymous publication of her first was front-page news and propelled sales of both books. She’s engaged to be married to a fellow teacher and planning on having children with him. The ever persistent and still somewhat magical Ethan invites her out for a drink. As the lights go down, she has her coat on, her purse in hand and she’s hesitating at her door. Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers has a very strongly involving first act, a good second act that still has some involving surprises but works a bit too hard to wrap things up. The final moment is a bit of a cliché, not a big question, but certainly something to talk about with friends.
Brian Cowden is quite wonderful as the brashly magnetic Ethan. Anne Bates matches him nicely as the at first reticent, later glowing and once again tempted Olivia. You can find an interview with them at WFIU.ORG/ARTS. Direction is by Scott Weinstein, the sets are by Jeff Kmiec.
The Cardinal Stage Company’s production of Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center plays through February 25th.
At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker.