Sex with Strangers at TheaterWorks Demonstrates the Generation Gap

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Courtney Rackley and Patrick Ball. Photo by Lanny Nagler

By Karen Isaacs

 Watching Sex with Strangers, now at TheaterWorks in Harford through Sunday, April 17, I suddenly felt very old. This play written by Laura Eason, has had seven productions throughout the country this year, making it one of the ten most produced plays. Eason in addition to having written 20 plays, is a writer and producer on the acclaimed TV series House of Cards.

The appeal of this relationship comedy-drama is clear.  It speaks to the generation now in their 20s and 30s, and every theater is trying to attract them. Whether it also will appeal to an older audience is somewhat questionable.

So what is this play about?  We have Olivia (Courtney Rackley) a writer/teacher in her late 30s at a remote inn or B&B. It is snowing outside and she is editing a manuscript; her second novel we learn later.  It is evening and when the bell rings, she is startled.  At the door is Ethan (Patrick Ball) who was expected earlier in the day and was assumed not to be coming. He too is a writer, but he is about 25 and full of the arrogance and cockiness of youth. He is also a “hunk.”

As all good relationship plays start, the two are not compatible. Ethan is brash, insensitive, and very taken with himself.  He reveals to Laura that he has had two books on the best seller list; each semi-true accounts of his efforts to have sex with strangers (thus the title) and write about them. So he picked up various girls in bars and other places, charmed them, bedded them, and then wrote about them – often nastily—in his blog which led to the books. He is at the cabin to work on the screenplay which was due last week.

Olivia is more serious and insecure.  Her first novel was published a number of years ago, did not do well and she has decided to write only for herself. The thought of negative reviews and disappointments are too much for her to contemplate.

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Courtney Rackley. Photo by Lanny Nagler

The first act details their three days at the house.  Yes, Ethan kisses Olivia and though she initially rejects it, she is soon in his arms.  She becomes another of his “sex with strangers” conquests.  In the next two days, they have sex and talk of books and goals.  Ethan pushes her for information and pushes to read her new book; he had actually read and liked her first novel because a mutual friend who had really liked the book, had given him a copy. She does not want to let him read it, but while she is sleeping he takes it and reads it.

He convinces her – or semi-bullies her – into allowing him to post on an “app” that he has created her first novel under a nom de plume.  He tells her this a way to get the book “out there” without the personal vulnerability.

Act two takes place in the following weeks in Olivia’s Chicago apartment.  The relationship is continuing but cracks are beginning to appear.  Ethan has introduced Olivia to his agent who loves the new book, and a big deal is in process.  But it is as though Ethan seems a little jealous of Olivia’s pending success.  He tries to convince her to let him publish the book on line, not using the prominent publisher who is interested, is offering a major advance, and will market the novel aggressively.

After a fight about Ethan’s probable infidelity, he storms out and when he returns the next day, he reveals he has once again broken Olivia’s trust.  The play ends 18 months later with Olivia having moved on.

It is surprising that a woman would create a character such as Olivia.  She too easily succumbs to the “body beautiful” of Ethan and ignores all the signs that he is a self-obsessed man used to getting his own way.  She deludes herself that the man who wrote “sex with strangers” is not the Ethan she knows.  She ignores warning sign after warning sign.  Was the sex that good?

Courtney Rackley creates a believable Olivia – vulnerable and somewhat unsure of herself. She is afraid of being hurt yet puts herself into harm’s way. When the warning signs appear, she ignores them or only weakly protests.

Patrick Ball totally captures the self-assurance, ego and at times, the anger of Ethan.  He is one of those twenty-somethings – who becomes jittery at the thought of not having cell phone service or wifi.

Eason makes some clear points about the willingness of Ethan’s generation to live their lives on social media, telling anyone and everyone personal details of their lives.  All is available for consumption. Ethan is proud that some of the women he bedded have written about their encounters with him in their own blogs and other social media outlets.  Details that most of us might want kept hidden because we might feel embarrassed or ashamed are broadcast and become fodder for making money.

Certainly the actors spend a lot of time taking off and putting on clothes.  Almost half of the scenes end with the two undressing for sex, or dressing after it.  The play also features quite a bit of language that one expects in a David Mamet play.  From Ethan’s self-description as an a**hole, to terms for sex, swear words, etc. are frequent.  In fact if the sex scenes and language were toned down, the play would run at least 15 minutes shorter than its two plus hour length.

Rob Ruggiero has done a good job both with casting and direction.  The play moves – though it might move faster – and each actor develops the characters fully.

Brian Prather has created two realistic sets for the cabin and the apartment with a wall of books. The efforts of sound designer Fitz Patton and lighting designer John Lasiter are particularly effective in the first act.

Sex with Strangers is not for everyone.  Certainly it is not for anyone under 18. How you feel about the play may be a reflection of how you feel about the characters. I kept wanting to tell Olivia to develop some backbone and not be taken in by the immature Ethan.

Sex with Strangers is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford, through Sunday April 17. For tickets. For information visit theaterworkshartford.org or call 860-527-7838.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and http://www.zip06.

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Courtney Rackley and Patrick Ball. Photo by Lanny Nagler

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