The San Diego Rep’s set for Laura Eason’s “sex comedy” lures one away from the alluring title, albeit briefly. The scene’s the cozy interior of an elegantly rustic, two-story cabin in rural Michigan. The dark fur of a headless animal — bear? — sprawls beneath a rock fireplace. Roughhewn redwood touches add to the feel of a rural sanctuary. If one works with words for a living, or aspires to, Brian Redfern’s set shouts “writer’s retreat!”
And it is. Thirty-nine-year-old Olivia has come to proofread her second novel. Her first got mixed reviews and died on the remainder shelf along with her aspirations. The cover committed at least half the crime: the publisher jazzed it up to resemble a “chick lit” bodice-ripper. Whoever judged the book by its cover hated it: the chick-lit’rs because it wasn’t; lit-lovers because it might be.
The retreat and Olivia are a perfect fit. Though a teacher, she’s a full-time introvert who covets her privacy so much she doesn’t have a smart phone. “I guess I’m the last anonymous person in my generation,” she says (take comfort, Olivia, you are not alone).
As she blue-pencils novel number two, headlights illumine falling snowflakes outside the window. But they promised her solitude. Door knocks, with jackhammer assertiveness. “Who are you?” she asks, a question that will roam through the piece like a leitmotif.
Enter Ethan, 28, an alpha-narcissist stud who, he’s quick to tell her, has had two books on the New York Times best-seller list for five months combined. The first, called Sex with Strangers, began as a blog about his amatory conquests. A friend dared him to make a new one every week for a year, but not online, which can inflate actuality. He had to go to a bar once a week for a year, conquer, and blog it. The book, under the pseudonym Ethan Strange, was the result of his 52 pick-ups.
But now, after More Sex with Strangers hit the charts hard, he wants to shed his image, stop writing about “filthy, nasty little sluts,” and be a serious novelist. Or so he tells Olivia, though he admits he reads only living writers, not the “dead ones.”
They are opposites as much, if not more, than Oscar and Felix. Though a recluse, Olivia craves approval but wants to write without needing any. Ethan’s an approval-magnet. It’s his lifeblood, the internet’s his IV. When he learns the cabin has no wi-fi, or even electricity, he shouts, “I can’t get online. People will think I’m dead!”
He follows that with “And what if you have to look something up?”
To which Olivia replies, “What would I need to know that urgently?”
Embedded in her reply — along with an obvious Gen X/Millennial contrast — is a question the play explores repeatedly: how do we know each other? With the corollary, can we?
Whenever Ethan’s on stage with her, he pays Olivia ferocious attention. He’s fully attuned to her needs, a positive, hair-trigger response for her every word. In effect, he’s her ideal reader. But he’s so ideal you’d think that with her novelist’s eye she’d become suspicious, wait for the other shoe to drop.
Instead, Ethan seduces her body and mind. But he has needs too — literary gravitas, first publication rights to her novel, a continuing urge to conquer? Is his laudatory heat a ruse? When he’s with her Ethan’s a glowing yummy, a one-note Dr. Jekyll. But offstage, Mr. Hyde?
Sex with Strangers asks: Are people as unknowable in person as they are online? An obvious answer would be yes, if you have a black belt in gullibility. But beneath the surface, there isn’t much to Olivia or Ethan. They are their stereotypes: she the shut-in, pensive introvert; he the four-alarm world-beater. Another stereotype brings them together: opposites attract. And it does. Almost every scene in act one concludes with them trailing clouds of couture as they scamper to the upstairs bedroom.
What gets lost in the groping: she writes the truth, while he may have invented many of his “sexcapades.” Yet he’s the best-seller and her book gets mislabeled: to attract readers who prefer the prurient, or market a heartfelt book by a female writer?
Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg and the San Diego Rep’s design team give the two-hander a good go. Except for a tendency to face front and mug reactions, Lisel Gorell-Getz and Connor Sullivan do capable work, in particular their bipolar physicality; they embrace and reject with equal fervor. And though their characters are superficial, each suggests there may be more beneath Anastasia Pautova’s expressive costumes.
You could call Sex with Strangers an impact play. It grabs (and entertains) as you watch. But looking back it’s just a slippery surface. But maybe that’s the playwright’s message about our day and age.
Olivia’s desperate need for artistic approval could have benefitted from Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle, followed, if necessary, by David Bayles and Ted Orland’s Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking.
79 Horton Plaza, Downtown San Diego
Sex with Strangers, by Laura Eason
Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg; cast: Lisel Gorell-Getz, Connor Sullivan; scenic design, Brian Redfern, costumes, Anastasia Pautova, lighting, Anthony Jannuzzi, sound and music, Kevin Anthenill
Playing through March 19, Wednesday and Sunday at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. sdrep.org