By Daniel Skora
Now that we’ve got everyone’s attention!
Actually, as salacious as the title of Laura Eason’s play might sound, “Sex with Strangers” is more about publishing in the digital age than it is about wanton expressions of love. Any romantic encounters that take place on the Detroit Public Theatre stage between the play’s male and female characters beyond a little kissing and groping all happen after the house lights are dimmed.
“Sex with Strangers” is one of those great titles that indicates more than just one thing about the play. Except for a shared interest in the writing game and a prior link to a common acquaintance, Olivia and Ethan are strangers when they meet at a quiet writer’s retreat in upper Michigan. With nary a television set to be found on the entire compound, the internet not currently operating, and snow piling high on the doorstep, there’s really not a whole lot to do at the out-of-the-way cabin. Except, well, you can guess what.
Though she still tinkers with an unpublished novel, the soon-to-turn-forty Olivia (Hallie Bee Bard) has all but given up hopes of ever being published again. After her first novel failed to stir up any critical interest, she put aside serious writing and resigned herself to the conventional life of a teacher. She’s currently enjoying her winter break away from the big city, reading and relaxing.
Enter Ethan (Matt Lockwood), a cocky young man ten years her junior. Ethan comes bringing unexpected praise for Olivia’s unpublished novel, a copy of which he has obtained by way of a mutual professor friend. It’s a brilliant book, he tells Olivia, and encourages her to get an agent and publish online, an experience with which he is entirely familiar. Several years ago, on an alcohol-fueled lark, he claimed to have no problem having sex once a week for a year with women he had never previously met (hence, sex with strangers). He began putting his exploits in a blog, describing in detail every sordid thing that had gone on between him and his all-too-willing partners. His blogs were such a hit that they were published in an online e-book called, what else, “Sex with Strangers” At the time we meet him in the play, “More Sex with Strangers” has become a follow up hit, and a movie version of the first title is already in the works.
The play, a drama-comedy, has lots going for it in intellectual curiosity. It’s a contemporary story that deals with ambition, honesty, hard covers vs. e-books, and relationships between the sexes. Detroit Public Theatre’s production is smartly stylish. The fashionable set (design by Sarah Pearline) converts nicely from a writer’s retreat (Act 1) to a booklover’s Chicago apartment (Act 2).
Bard and Lockwood never overdo the chemistry required of two people who have similar interests in writing and taking care of their personal sexual drives, but don’t have a lot in common otherwise. There should be more than just a physical attraction that gets the two into bed, especially from Olivia’s perspective. Ethan is a man without morals, and a woman who’s much classier than the barfly bimbos he’s bedded over the years and a significantly better writer than he’ll ever be, would be a mighty conquest indeed.
Olivia, however, is a professional woman whom you would expect to have thoroughly scrutinized a man’s character and intentions before jumping into the sack with him. Playwright Eason would have you believe that the coziness of a relaxing environment and praise received for something near and dear to her would be enough for Olivia to relinquish her assets easily and quickly. But that’s because Eason has other plans for the two hours that she has at her disposal. Why waste precious minutes on romance when there are more important issues to be dealt with.
Though not always on a clear path to its ultimate purpose, “Sex with Strangers” is an engrossing play that never lags, except, perhaps, during the intimate scenes, which tend to be voyeuristic and do little to advance the plot. Add adult language and what you’ve got is a provocative play that speaks volumes about the way information is disseminated in today’s changing world. Directed by Frannie Shepherd-Bates, the show runs through April 3rd. Tickets are available online at www.detroitpublictheatre.org, by phone at 313.576.5111, or in person at the Detroit Symphony box office. Performances of Detroit Public Theatre take place at the Robert A. and Maggie Allesee Rehearsal Hall inside the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center located at 3711 Woodward Avenue in Detroit.