Sex with Strangers at Kitchen Theatre Company
by Ed Cohn
Ithaca’s renowned, professional Kitchen Theatre Company (KTC) opened Laura Eason’s “Sex with Strangers” on Thursday, March 16th.
Eason is one of America’s top living playwrights, having written 20 plays, original works, and adaptations, as well as being a musical book writer and screenwriter. As a screenwriter, Laura wrote on seasons two and three of the Emmy-winning Netflix show “House of Cards.” Her new work, “Sex with Strangers” was one of the top ten most-produced plays in the 2015-16 American regional theater season and currently in production across the country. And this is no surprise – read on.
The play explores a relationship between two writers from disparate backgrounds who become sexually, if not romantically involved. The relationship gets entangled in their professional lives as well. We find Ethan, a very successful 28 year old who is on the leading edge of the e-publishing scene, and Olivia, ten or so years his senior, whose laptop is jokingly running Windows ’97, and attached to the old paradigm of physical books, struggling to overcome a disappointing release of her first book.
The play begins in a cabin in a remote location. It is winter and storming. She is at work on her new book, which is in the final editing stage when a car unexpectedly pulls up and there is knock on the door. It is Ethan.
Ethan bursts into the cabin with obnoxious bravado, strewing his belongings, helping himself to food and drink, all without as much as an introduction. He is the epitome of pompous self-assuredness. Olivia is taken aback and initially repulsed. He explains that he is a friend of an old partner of hers and that he has read her languishing book – twice, pulling her in with his adoration of her writing.
Ethan tells her of his own successful book, “Sex with Strangers”, that has become an internet sensation and propelled him to fame and some fortune. The idea behind his book is that he had sex with one woman a week for a year and blogged about it. In turn, the women he had sex with blogged about their experience with him, and he turned the whole thing into a successful e-book.
Olivia finds this to be shocking and repulsive, yet something in it stirs interest. He is very compelling and aggressive, and fairly bluntly intimates that they should have sex within fifteen minutes of his arrival. He is a smooth operator and quotes her book, which is the conquering blow – she cannot resist.
The speed of this seduction seemed a bit fast, but it’s needed to propel the story forward. Their tryst forms an immediate intimacy. Ethan wants to read Olivia’s new manuscript, but she is insistent he does not. Of course, however, he does when she is asleep. She’s furious, but his adulation of it finally wins her over. And he goes a step further insisting that he help her get it published. She is ever reluctant, but his persuasiveness is irresistible, and she submits.
Meanwhile, Ethan has his own book – a serious one – in the works, as well as negotiations on the making of a film of his successful “Sex with Strangers”. He leaves for LA to deal with that, and while gone the tables have turned. Olivia has read, after promising not to, “Sex with Strangers”. This has opened her eyes to who she now sees as a misogynistic scumbag. They meet up again at her apartment. He has brought her new success as an author, while his own career is taking a dive. She is so repulsed by him that he must work hard to win her back over. It’s a very tense scene.
There is much more detail to the story than all this, and I don’t want to give it all away, so I will stop here to encourage you to see this show. It is masterfully written and acted. The dialog is natural. There was enough “heat” on stage to add spark. LeeAnne Hutchison is Olivia and Darian Dauchan is Ethan. Both are veteran performers that have received accolades for their formidable talents.
Dauchan recently presented his one man tour de force “Death Boogie” at KTC which he wrote and starred in (reviewed here) earlier this year. Hutchison is making her KTC debut with “Sex with Strangers”. Both give deep, believable performances. I like that the racial disparity – he’s black and she’s white – doesn’t matter and is not specified. I would love to see another cast perform this show just to see how it can be handled by other personalities. In an interview, Dauchan states that this character was a stretch for him as he is not such an overt person in real life. He gets a chance here to really show his abilities.
The technical and supporting elements of this production are what we have come to expect from KTC – very professional and executed nicely. David L. Arsenault’s two sets were realistic and well-conceived, though there was too much fuss made about them in the preamble to the show given by Rachel Lampert. This was Lampert’s final show as director for KTC, culminating her illustrious tenure as artistic director for the last 20 years and director of over forty shows. Her commitment and enthusiasm, as well as her excellent direction, will be sorely missed.
Back to the stage setting, a sort of proscenium was made of bookshelves filled with books that framed the stage. This was present in both sets and created a unifying feature for both the sets and the theme of the show. Kudos to that little bit of brilliance.
Tyler M. Perry’s (the other Tyler Perry) lighting was very effective and well timed, adding just the right atmosphere. I found Lisa Boquist’s costume design to be a bit distracting and confusing. The choice of “tops” for Olivia didn’t seem to fit either Hutchison’s body or the season. Sound designer Sergey Levitskiy made a solid debut. Jen Schilansky was the stage manager – a generally thankless, yet crucial job. She kept everything running very smoothly. Smart casting was by Judy Bowman.
“Sex with Strangers” runs until April 2, Tickets are $15-$40. To purchase, call (607) 272-0570 or visit www.kitchentheatre.org.