Sex with Strangers – Theatre Review: Stray Cat Theatre with Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Center, Phoenix

Sex poster

In a play where one of the themes explored is identities, it’s perfectly appropriate that the first line of dialog should be “Who are you?”

That’s asked by Olivia (Heather Lee Harper) as she peers through an ice-covered window of a reclusive Michigan Bed & Breakfast as an unexpected car pulls up outside in the falling snow.  Kudos to both Paul Black’s lighting and Pete Bish’s sound design that working together creates the illusion of a real car parking itself behind the set.  The B&B is a retreat for writers and Olivia thinks she has the place to herself.  Then Ethan (Tyler Eglen) arrives, and what Olivia thought would be some quality alone time with her writer’s note pad and pencils dramatically changes.

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Sex with Strangers by Laura Eason was first developed and presented at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.  It’s the four play season opener for Ron May’s Stray Cat Theatre, only this season, things are different.  Having left its home base in Tempe, Stray Cat is about to stray further as its presents its oncoming season with a somewhat nomad existence, roaming from one location to another until at the end of its season it finally lands at what will be its permanent home at Tempe Center for the Arts.  As director May stated on Saturday evening’s opener, starting the 2015-2016 season at Herberger Center’s Stage West backed by Arizona Theatre Company is the culmination of a dream come true.

Sex with Strangers is a two person, two act comedy/drama.  The first half is a largely humorous account of the meeting of two writers from two different generations,.  The second half shifts location and develops into a more confrontational affair; the humor gives way to drama.  While enjoying the meeting of two people with more than a decade between them – he’s in his mid to late twenties; she’s a year shy or so of forty – it’s difficult to know where the play might be heading, and that’s the strength of Eason’s writing; she keeps us interested in both Ethan and Olivia throughout and delivers a second half with a different rhythm that no one could have predicted.  Given what we learn about both characters, what finally develops is both satisfying and perfectly acceptable.

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Even though the intentionally provocative title suggests one thing, the play is really about something else, though it certainly has its share of explicit moments befitting the boundary pushing content of a Stray Cat production as Olivia succumbs to Ethan’s seductive manner, usually at the end of a scene and just at the fade out.  When Ethan arrives he’s immediately flustered by the absence of a signal for his cell or the lack of wi-fi.  He can’t help himself.  He’s grown in an age of constant communication and can’t handle this sudden isolation.  “People will think I’m dead,” he declares.  “What a jackoff,” Olivia thinks out loud.

The difference between the two writers is not simply age.  Olivia is perfectly at home writing long hand without the aid of electronic bells and whistles.  She’s also almost as reclusive as the B&B.  Having had her fair share of publishing disappointments, Olivia now writes for herself and is no longer happy with the idea of someone else reading her work.  The younger Ethan, on the other hand, is open to everything.  In fact, his life is literally an open book.  His incredibly successful on-line blog is not only a fortune maker, it’s an account of all of his conquests with women played out by his alter ego Ethan Strange.  “That’s all I do,” he proudly declares.  “Have sex and reminisce about it.”  The blog is called Sex with Strangers.  “How is that not porn?” Olivia asks.  “No pictures,” Ethan replies.

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Writer Eason has a talent for plotting and a keen ear for good dialog.  Elements introduced in the first half have comical payoffs in the second.  Ethan’s panic of being without his phone causes a ring tone silence in the first half.  In the second, when engaging in a heart to heart confrontation with Olivia at her Chicago apartment, his phone keeps ringing, interrupting the flow of dialog.  In the first half when discussing tangible books as opposed to something published on-line, Olivia states, “Old books; the best smell in the world.”  In the second half when Ethan presents Olivia with an iPad as a gift, she sniffs the flat screen and says, “Smells like the future.”

Eric Beeck’s first half set is an effective and highly detailed design of a rustic country cottage complete with falling snow as seen through frosty windows.  In the second, with several alterations, the B&B becomes Olivia’s Chicago apartment.  As lit by Paul Black, the darker, brown look of the retreat becomes clinically brighter in the apartment.  Both set and lighting nicely illustrate the difference in tone and atmosphere of Ethan and Olivia’s relationship.  The first half presents an inviting and somewhat romantic air – it’s not difficult to accept how Olivia, despite her differences, could be seduced by a younger man like Ethan in such a romanticized, cozy setting; all that’s missing is the Christmas tree in the corner – while the brightness of the second helps expose the reality of their relationship and where it will all be heading.  It’s also the place where Ethan’s on-line persona is brought to light and fully exposed in an overheard conversation with his manager.  He literally changes character not realizing that Olivia is listening.  Had she voiced that same opening line of the play’s first half, the repeated question would have been equally appropriate in the second.

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As stated repeatedly in this column, director Ron May is among the most consistently interesting talents in the valley, and with Sex with Strangers he pulls two outstanding performances from his players.  With his over-confidant, cock-sure manner, Ethan should be a character we dislike, yet Tyler Eglen fleshes something that makes the man likeably appealing to the point where we ultimately feel sympathy for the character.  True, a lot of that is due to Eason’s writing, but it’s Eglen under May’s direction that makes him real.  As Olivia, Heather Lee Harper has the kind of sexual magnetic draw that attracts us as much as it would a character like Ethan, and it’s the difference between these two characters that unintentionally highlights the difference between audiences watching the production.  A younger, edgier crowd who subscribe to Stray Cat may easier relate to a guy like Ethan, while a traditional Herberger Center audience would naturally lean towards the more mature Olivia.  When seen from this angle, May’s production of Sex with Strangers presented at the Herberger could not have been a more perfect setting.  And it’s a hugely entertaining play.

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