Eason’s couple met cute but then the sparks fly. Twentysomething Ethan Kane, aggressive, charming and hunky, arrives at a rural bed and breakfast in deepest Michigan that caters to writers who want to get away for some quiet time. He is hours late due to a snow storm and finds that he is no longer expected. There he meets retiring 39-year-old Olivia Lago who is housesitting for the manager. She is a college professor who years ago wrote a first novel that was highly admired by its defenders but failed to find favor with the critics or the readers who chose it because of its inappropriate cover. She stopped writing until recently when she finished another novel which she is fearful to put out in the marketplace as she is too thin-skinned to cope with additional critical reviews.
None too soon, Olivia discovers that Ethan is the bestselling author of the Sex with Strangers books which began as a blog on a dare from his friends: that he couldn’t bed a woman a week by meeting total strangers in bars the old-fashioned way, not hooking up on the internet. There are now internet blogs of the women he bedded commenting on how he portrayed them. In the process, he has acquired half a million followers and is currently late with the screenplay for a film version of the first book. Claiming to be here to get some writing done, Ethan and Olivia discuss the state of publishing and the internet – which he is furious to find is unavailable because of the storm as his followers will think he is dead. However, while the vulnerable Olivia is secretly desperate for praise, Ethan has a secret agenda and has sought her out.
Having read her first book which was lent to him by their mutual friend, he has come here knowing he would find her. While at first appearing to be an egocentric and overconfident jerk, he is actually extremely well read in cutting edge contemporary authors (David Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith) and some of the literary giants as well (Dostoyevsky, Gogol, etc.). Ethan magnanimously offers to put her first book on the internet under a new title and using a pseudonym while linking it to his blog which will make an instant best seller out of it. He even offers to set up an appointment with his agent.
But he may have an ulterior motive: he is setting up a new app which will “introduce people to hand picked, very cool new writers and selections of their stuff” – the 2014 online version of Reader’s Digest for the generation which wants a new thrill every day. Is Ethan only after a new work by Olivia Lago to put up on his app or is he really impressed with the quality of her writing and mind? The chemistry between them is electric. Needless to say, Olivia is overwhelmed by Ethan’s interest in her, and not immune to his charm or his sexy good looks, she allows him to take her to bed. And although the sex is great we are told, that’s where the trouble starts: aside from the ten-year disparity in their ages, can she trust him? Has he really turned his back on his profligate, libertine ways or will she find herself and their sex life written about in his blog? Having avoided the commercial aspects of publishing all her writing life, is she comfortable with all of the overtures to fame and fortune that he has waiting for her?
Besides the excellently developed relationship between two total opposites, the play also is a scrupulous examination of publishing in the internet era. Aside from talk of Amazon, Pandora, KDP, Smashwords and apps, Sex with Strangers is about the era of self-publishing, when if a book is not online for downloading it hasn’t happened, and where half of the quotes used to sell them are made up in order to provoke instant reactions. It is also about the era of online hook-ups, for Ethan has been researching the reclusive Olivia long before he has met her. The words Eaton has used to describe their writing also cleverly describes her characters: Ethan describes Olivia’s writing as spare, evocative and sharp which describes her, while he includes brutal, honest and confident which actually describes his personality quite accurately.
The casting is superb. Gunn expresses Olivia’s vulnerability and integrity with every line and moment of the play. From her body language, this beautiful blonde lets us know her character has had bad experiences with men and she has been so damaged by the bad reaction to her first novel that she has retreated in both life and her career. Magnussen’s Ethan, on the other hand, exudes arrogance and over-confidence having found easy success early in his life both with women and as a writer. Ethan is a very similar role to Durang’s Spike who was an over-confident and charismatic (but failed) actor. Here, Magnussen puts the same qualities to work making Ethan a fabulously successful entrepreneur of his own talents. While Magnussen became famous for his enviable abs and pecs as the often undressed Spike, here he puts them to work for a character who is not only comfortable with his body but uses his flawless physique to fascinate the women he wants. In the course of the play’s two years, Magnussen develops from boyish egotism to adult uncertainty, while Gunn gains confidence as her career begins to take off. Unlike so many recent plays, here the theater crackles with the sexual vibes between Olivia and Ethan and the uncertainly of their future together is very captivating.
Schwimmer, who is a co-founder of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company (where the author is also a member as well as having served as its artistic director for six years), knows this territory from all sides having appeared on Friends for ten years. His direction is silken smooth and always assured. Often he makes us feel like voyeurs listening in on private conversations rather than a very public stage play. He obtains all of the nuances from this very funny, very clever play which is also as hip and cool as they come. The two settings by Andromache Chalfant are picture perfect for the story’s needs, the semi-abstract living room/reading room of the rural bed and breakfast in winter and Olivia’s contemporary Chicago apartment in warmer weather. E.Sosa’s chic contemporary clothes define the characters even before they open their mouths. Japhy Weideman’s unobtrusive lighting design is it both atmospheric and moody. The sound design by Fitz Patton defines the play as totally contemporary.
Given such well-written roles, Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen turn Sex with Strangers into a tour de force. Laura Eaton (currently a story editor on House of Cards, another hip well-written drama) has written a brilliant contemporary romantic dramedy but it also takes perfect casting and acting to make such an evening both convincing and absorbing. This Gunn, Magnussen and Schwimmer have accomplished in spades. Sex with Strangers is an evening not to be missed.
Sex with Strangers (through August 24, 2014)
The Second Stage, 305 West 43rd Street, west of Eighth Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-246-4422 or visit http://www.2ST.com
Running time: two hours and 25 minutes including one intermission