Take two brilliant actors who are so “real” that you forget they’re acting. Add a fine director to guide them through their adventure, and top it off with a script that is so intelligent, engrossing and thought-provoking that it leaves you, as a good book does, feeling wistful when it comes to an end.
Such a play is Laura Eason’s “Sex with Strangers” which, despite its off-putting name, tells a story that is relevant and poignant in today’s ever-changing technological society.
Set in a bed and breakfast in Michigan that serves as a writer’s retreat, it is currently occupied by a novelist, Olivia (a radiant Rebecca Pidgeon). She is there alone because a blizzard has kept everyone else away. Except for Ethan (Stephen Louis Grush), who wanders in unceremoniously and makes himself at home.
Ethan is also a writer. Originally a blogger, he produced a chronicle of all his sexual conquests in a blog called “Sex with Strangers.” After attracting half a million followers to his blog, he parlayed his journal into a book that remained on the New York Times best seller list for five years.
Despite the fact that his portrayal of them was candid and often brutal – or maybe because of that – he was never at a loss for willing women. Moreover, many of them produced their own counter-blogs in which they portrayed him as the sleazy superstar he had become.
But, he insists to Olivia, his public persona is not who he really is, and he charms her and seduces her to prove his point.
She, on the other hand, had written a beautiful, sensitive book that had been mishandled by her publisher. They had promoted it as a “chick” book and provided a cover that was misleading and inappropriate. So, as she tells it, the people who should have read it and would have appreciated it were put off by the way it was presented, while the people who did read it were put off because it wasn’t the sort of book they had expected.
During several days of perceptive and stimulating conversation, and even more stimulating sex, she reveals to him that she has written a second book, which she believes is better than her first. And reluctantly, she allows him to read it.
He is overwhelmed by her work and insists on introducing her to his agent. He also suggests that she use his blog to promote the book to his followers, who, he says, will make her rich and famous.
She is reluctant, however, and launches into a sensuous monologue about the current technology that has imposed itself on so many of life’s most satisfying and tangible objects. And so, she insists, she doesn’t want her book published online.
Until, that is, Ethan’s agent informs her that the eminent publishing house, FSG (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is interested in publishing her new book and making it available online.
Ethan persists in advising her in a way that implies that he wants to piggy-back on her success. And on a trip to Los Angeles he continues to capitalize on his badboy persona, which makes you wonder if his relationship with Olivia has all been a sham.
And she wonders, too, and berates him when he returns from L.A., to which he comments ruefully, “Your book made me love you; my book made you hate me.”
In this lovely play, expertly directed by Kimberly Senior, sex is a major theme that is tenderly played out. The two stars have a delightful chemistry together, and their relationship is totally credible. What’s more, their passionate love scenes are tastefully presented, reaching their climax only in your imagination as the two disappear offstage.
An added fillip to “Sex with Strangers” is the quality of the production, which is enhanced by Sybil Wickersheimer’s warm and comfortable set design, the sound design of Cricket Myers, and the dynamic lighting design by Joshua Epstein.
If you get the idea that I thoroughly enjoyed this play, you’re right! My guess is that you will, too.
“Sex with Strangers” can be seen Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. through Sunday, April 10th at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, in Westwood.
To make reservations, call (310) 208-5454 or go online to www.geffenplayhouse.com.