Total Rating: 
Octobr 20, 2017
November 12, 2017
Renaissance Theaterworks
Theater Type: 
Studio Theater
Theater Address: 
158 North Broadway
Running Time: 
2 hrs, 15 min
Laura Eason
Mallory Metoxen

There’s more than a few hilarious one-liners in Laura Eason’s timely play, Sex with Strangers However, like the soufflé it becomes, the play takes time to warm up. When it does, however, the heat is turned up to just the right temperature in this production by Milwaukee’s Renaissance Theaterworks. One could hardly imagine a better selection for this 25-year-old company, founded by a group of women and friends who wanted to see more women represented on both sides of the curtain.

As the play opens, Olivia, a 39-year-old author and teacher is settling into a cozy Michigan retreat. She takes a manuscript and a pile of books with her to the couch, and pours herself a glass of wine. Olivia (Marti Gobel) is just starting to relax when she is startled by a knock on the door. Unnerved at her vulnerability in this remote place, Olivia looks around to see what she can use as a weapon. She picks up a heavy book. She keeps holding the book to her chest as a much younger man enters and introduces himself. “You were supposed to be here by 6,” Olivia says, showing her annoyance at the late-night intrusion. He’s initially put off by her attitude but still makes it clear he’s planning to stay. Ethan (Nick Narcisi) confidently tosses off his boots in one corner and carelessly hurls a coat in another, basically taking “ownership” of the place he has rented for a few days as a writing retreat. He makes no apologies for being “late,” other than to blame the weather.

Their frosty introduction begins to melt when Ethan claims to know a mutual friend. When she asks how he knows their friend. Ethan reveals that, like her, he’s an author. Ethan flatters Olivia by praising her book. He even quotes from it. She is genuinely shocked. The book was such a flop when it was released a few years ago that the humiliation drove Olivia into teaching.

The play is far more than two characters who “meet by chance in the night.” Eason raises interesting questions about love and lust, the complex nature of identity in this digital world, and what this may hold in the future. What this production doesn’t have – despite the work of an intimacy consultant and an intimacy choreographer – is sex. There is foreplay, to be sure, but most of the sex (and there’s a fair amount of it) is handled offstage or in front of the audience as the stage lights fade to black.

Sex with Strangers debuted at Steppenwolf in nearby Chicago in 2011. It opened Off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theater in 2014. According to its press materials, Sex with Strangers is currently among the top 10 plays produced by U.S. regional theaters. (That shouldn’t surprise anyone; “sex sells” has been an advertising industry adage for more than a century.)

But, as indicated above, there’s more than sex on this menu. It’s first evident when Olivia casually mentions to Ethan that the cottage doesn’t have internet access. Ethan earns a huge laugh by claiming, in all seriousness, that “people will think I’m dead.” Olivia discovers that Ethan’s success began with a blog, in which he describes what happened after betting a friend that he could bed a different woman each week for a year. The blog becomes a book, called “Sex with Strangers.” Between this volume and a sequel, Ethan ends up on the New York Times bestseller list for five years. He’s only 28 but has mastered social media well enough to have made quite a lot of money. Now the book is in the process of becoming a movie.

To an internet-newbie such as Olivia, all this sounds like science fiction. Ethan offers to use his connections to republish Olivia’s failed novel as an e-book, using a pen name instead of her real one. Olivia is dazzled by this possibility, to the point where she notices that Ethan is quite good-looking. When he makes a play for her, she resists only slightly.

But there is far more emotional distance between them than just the age gap. Gobel presents Olivia as a strong-willed woman who is interested in sharing her own personal truth with readers. As Ethan, Narcisi says that he’s more interested in satisfying the public’s interest. His success is based on becoming an online avatar who shows little regard for the women once the pursuit is won. Narcisi insists that his “real” personality is nothing like the shallow Hal he portrays.

Eason’s play is most interesting when Olivia and Ethan misread each other. In one of the final scenes, Ethan claims that Olivia was just “using” him for what he could do for her professionally. Minutes later, Olivia tells him that the reason she eventually fell for another (older) man was because he’d be more interested in settling down and having children. When she tells Ethan that she knows having children would be the last thing on his mind, Narcisi’s look reveals volumes. They don’t even perceive the truth written in each other’s face.

The action plays out in two sets; the remote Michigan writing retreat (Act I), and Olivia’s apartment (Act II). The first set is by far the more elaborate and inviting of the two. Set designer Sarah Ross creates an interesting, woven space of nooks, crannies and comfortable furniture, invitingly lit by designer Marisa Abbott. In contrast, Olivia’s apartment is basically four, square walls. It is far more cluttered and less attractive than the picturesque Michigan retreat in Act I. The audience may end up thinking that the “strange” Michigan location was as much an aphrodisiac as anything that was said or done by the couple.

That Ethan and Olivia manage to keep their spark alive throughout the second half is a testament to the skills and chemistry between these two actors, as well as to the agile direction of Mallory Metoxen. Is there a future for these two kindred spirits? They keep us guessing until the play’s indecisive finale. The overall result is a funny, sexy play that makes us examine how we are being shaped by the values and influences of today’s society.

adult & sexual themes
Marti Gobel (Olivia), Nick Narcisi (Ethan).
Set: Sarah E. Ross; Costumes: Kristina Sneshkoff; Lighting: Marisa Abbott; Sound: Megan Heninger; Intimacy design: Christopher Elst; Intimacy consultant: Tonia Sims.
Anne Siegel
Date Reviewed: 
January 2017