Sex With Strangers - Review

Sunday, September 27, 2015


This is the first show in Stray Cat Theatre's 2015 season and also an interesting "meeting" of sorts, since it is Stray Cat's first co-production with the Arizona Theatre Company. Like the play, this partnership proves to be a very successful collaboration.

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.