Sex With Strangers - Theatre Review

Sunday, September 27, 2015
Valley Screen and Stage


In a play where one of the themes explored is identities, it’s perfectly appropriate that the first line of dialog should be “Who are you?”

Sex with Strangers is a two person, two act comedy/drama. The first half is a largely humorous account of the meeting of two writers from two different generations,. The second half shifts location and develops into a more confrontational affair; the humor gives way to drama. While enjoying the meeting of two people with more than a decade between them – he’s in his mid to late twenties; she’s a year shy or so of forty – it’s difficult to know where the play might be heading, and that’s the strength of Eason’s writing; she keeps us interested in both Ethan and Olivia throughout and delivers a second half with a different rhythm that no one could have predicted. Given what we learn about both characters, what finally develops is both satisfying and perfectly acceptable.

Eric Beeck’s first half set is an effective and highly detailed design of a rustic country cottage complete with falling snow as seen through frosty windows. In the second, with several alterations, the B&B becomes Olivia’s Chicago apartment. As lit by Paul Black, the darker, brown look of the retreat becomes clinically brighter in the apartment. Both set and lighting nicely illustrate the difference in tone and atmosphere of Ethan and Olivia’s relationship. The first half presents an inviting and somewhat romantic air – it’s not difficult to accept how Olivia, despite her differences, could be seduced by a younger man like Ethan in such a romanticized, cozy setting; all that’s missing is the Christmas tree in the corner – while the brightness of the second helps expose the reality of their relationship and where it will all be heading. It’s also the place where Ethan’s on-line persona is brought to light and fully exposed in an overheard conversation with his manager. He literally changes character not realizing that Olivia is listening. Had she voiced that same opening line of the play’s first half, the repeated question would have been equally appropriate in the second.

As stated repeatedly in this column, director Ron May is among the most consistently interesting talents in the valley, and with Sex with Strangers he pulls two outstanding performances from his players. With his over-confidant, cock-sure manner, Ethan should be a character we dislike, yet Tyler Eglen fleshes something that makes the man likeably appealing to the point where we ultimately feel sympathy for the character. True, a lot of that is due to Eason’s writing, but it’s Eglen under May’s direction that makes him real. As Olivia, Heather Lee Harper has the kind of sexual magnetic draw that attracts us as much as it would a character like Ethan, and it’s the difference between these two characters that unintentionally highlights the difference between audiences watching the production. A younger, edgier crowd who subscribe to Stray Cat may easier relate to a guy like Ethan, while a traditional Herberger Center audience would naturally lean towards the more mature Olivia. When seen from this angle, May’s production of Sex with Strangers presented at the Herberger could not have been a more perfect setting. And it’s a hugely entertaining play.