You know you’re in a summer theater swoon when you think “Eh, I don’t want to go all the way up to the Upper West Side” even if the show in question has been rated a New York Times Critic’s Pick AND is available on TDF for just $27 AND was directed by David Schwimmer. (It’s gorgeous out! I can’t spend all day on the subway!) But then I realized that Sex With Strangers is at the midtown Second Stage location, rather than the uptown one, and that was enough to rouse me out of my lazy stupor.
Sex With Strangers is a two-character play about Ethan (Billy Magnussen), a Tucker Max-like blogger (who chronicles his conquests online on his “Sex With Strangers” blog) and Olivia (Anna Gunn), a fortyish unsuccessful-but-talented novelist. When Ethan arrives at a remote B&B, this brash, crass twentysomething makes it his mission to win Olivia’s heart and to revive her flagging career. The central conflict of the play concerns their opposing viewpoints about both sex and writing. She fears criticism of her work; he is an unapologetic Internet lightning rod; he wants artistic acclaim in addition to his commercial success; she’s (rightfully) concerned about his attitude toward women.
There were lots of racy bits, which is no surprise given the play’s title. To honest, however, the love scenes felt extraneous. Olivia and Ethan’s conflicts aren’t physical: rather, they are intellectual and emotional. So there was no real need for a sexual release, as far as I was concerned. But then both of these actors are fairly gorgeous so I suppose most of the audience didn’t mind too much. I do wonder why David Schwimmer felt the need to emphasize the love scenes to this extent. Perhaps with a title like this one, he had no choice? Give the people what they want, right?
As for the cast: I’m of two minds about Billy Magnussen. His performance can be described in a single word: Hammy. Sure, he’s believable as the jokey frat guy sex blogger, but the character is supposed to possess deeper layers, which were nowhere in evidence. It was hard to fathom why the thoughtful Olivia would be so attracted to this blowhard. On the other hand, he’s very funny and those laughs give Sex With Strangers a lot of its appeal. Anna Gunn, on the other hand, doesn’t need any debate: she’s honest, and funny, and likable, and very smart.
The playwright, Laura Eason, has an even-handed perspective that I really appreciated: Ethan may have a disgusting, oversimplified view of women, but he also wants to be a nice guy who is supportive of Olivia’s career. (Well, up to a point.) You’re never really sure where he stands, and that’s a good thing. Sex With Strangers has really nice moments of humor, interesting ideas about what can and should be put online, and vivid characters. Plus I liked that these people live in Chicago. (It seems like it’s always New York City in these relationship plays, doesn’t it?) There’s a lot to like here. However it seems like Ms. Eason is most at ease with dialogue, and less so with plot, because the big second act plot twist doesn’t even make sense logically. And the play’s final scene is a bizarre, exposition-laden epilogue that really felt tacked on.
Ultimately, I wish this was the kind of show that really needed sex scenes, if that makes sense. I wish the conflict was a little more visceral, and we had a chance to witness the explosive collision between two smart and passionate people with very different perspectives. The actual fight at the end is based on that ridiculous plot twist, and was therefore a lot less interesting than it could have been. As it is, I think Sex With Strangers feels a little more like a romantic comedy than it really wants to.
My Grade: B
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission)
Ticket Price: $27 (TDF)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: 50/50