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Anna Gunn was nearly in tears Wednesday: After her opening-night performance of the Off-Broadway production of Sex With Strangers at New York City’s Second Stage Theatre, she found herself in a long, heartfelt hug with Breaking Bad writer Moira Walley-Beckett. Meanwhile, co-star Billy Magnussen bid David Hyde Pierce goodbye before indulging in celebratory drinks with guests at the Yotel afterparty.
The two-person play, which premiered in 2011 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, centers on Olivia, a critically underappreciated novelist pushing 40, and Ethan, a hunky 20-something blog-to-book sensation who has topped the New York Times bestseller list by detailing his sexual exploits with strangers.
“Although they’re only 11 years apart, their relationship with technology, their age group aligns very differently with the Internet — I was interested in exploring this moment in time and what intimacy means now,” playwright and House of Cards story editor Laura Eason told The Hollywood Reporter. (She got the Cards gig after showrunner Beau Willimon read this play.)
Director David Schwimmer added: “The play is trying to ask a series of questions to you and not provide many answers. If it’s working, it’s asking you to reevaluate and check in with yourself: What’s your relationship to social media? Are there things being compromised and lost due to the amount of time I’m spending on my devices or texting as much as I do? Or is it something that’s just the way it is now, and nothing is being lost?”
Olivia struggles to share a second work with the world, but then agrees to another shot under a pseudonym. “I admired her courage and conviction about her work,” Gunn told THR after the opening performance. “She knew she was a good writer and had talent, but hasn’t achieved much success. And she was someone who had made very clear decisions and drawn boundaries in her to protect herself, and then was willing to break those open.” Gunn calls the two-character play “a love story that’s also about a bunch of other things.”
“There’s a real strength that Anna brings to Olivia that I had hoped was there, but Anna really helped me crystallize that,” added Eason. “It’s important to me that Olivia is not insecure; it’s not that she lacks confidence, she believes she’s very talented but things have just not gone her way. In previous productions, people thought she was insecure, so that was important to delineate.”
Gunn also told THR that playing Strangers‘ hilarious heroine after an Emmy-winning run as Breaking Bad‘s Skyler White “was like I was breathing new air — there were certain days in rehearsal or even onstage in the scene before intermission, where I’m just so delighted, I start giggling like a little girl!”
“Breaking Bad was extraordinary, and I couldn’t have asked for a greater stroke of luck,” she continued. “But Skyler was so shut down and closed off — that was part of the storytelling and character, so I had to abide by that, that was my job. But then I’m able to take full breaths, stretch and be open, fun and loose and all those different colors — because Olivia changes, she’s like a little girl sometimes and then she stands up and roars like a lion.”
Gunn said of taking on a two-hander on a small stage: “There’s nothing like telling a full story for two hours straight, where nobody can cut away. In film and TV, you have to just give your performance and let it go, and say it’s going to probably be a different thing than I imagine, and you just accept it. In this, you get to really live through it and feel the whole trajectory of that story and person through that time.”
Magnussen was initially attracted to the part because of Ethan’s own duality. “I noticed when I talk about there’s a difference between [pseudonym] Ethan Strange and Ethan Kane, and saying, ‘I did these things but that’s not who I am, I am more than just that,’ — getting out of boxes is important, and I really connected with that,” he said.
The actor also added that he loved the idea of “the four of us coming together to make one piece. My soul feels better when I do this play, it really does.” Eason explained of Magnussen portraying Ethan for the first time: “Billy is just so charming! We found some new moments with him in terms of his depth that was important to me, as well as the comedy.” (And what’s his favorite part about working with Gunn? “Her ass.”)
While Gunn isn’t glued to her phone beyond checking for messages from her daughters, she did create an Instagram account the day before the premiere, “and Billy Magnussen just made uproarious fun of me, saying ‘You don’t hashtag like that! They can’t be that long!’ ” Eason admitted she’s commonly latched to her gadgets.
Magnussen, whose character uses Twitter a lot to chat with fans, said, “What’s funny is, through this play, I’ve gained a bigger respect for it for marketing purposes. There’s a line in the play that says, ‘I know there’s a difference between being popular and being good, but at least be part of the conversation,’ and I think that’s very important.”
Still, as Olivia embodies onstage, to be part of the conversation is a scary thing, Eason herself admitted. “There’s a line in the play: ‘How do I make myself hard enough to withstand all the criticism that inevitably comes when you try to put yourself out there, but stay soft and vulnerable to be the artist’ — she says ‘writer’ — ‘I want to be?’ ” she said. “I definitely feel that. It’s hard when you put so much of your heart, mind and soul into your creative projects, but if you don’t, they’re not gonna be what you want them to be. You have to weather the storm of response, but for all creative artists, putting your work out there is not neutral.”
Schwimmer said of his own creative jitters, “I’m not the kind of person who does something just for myself; I believe we generate things to put it out into the world to inspire discussion, debate and reaction. Of course I’ve been an actor in things or directed things that have been critically ill-received, and it’s hard. But it doesn’t make me not want to keep working and growing. Someone once said — and this helps me just a little when I read a bad review — that no child in school, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, raises their hand and says they want to be a critic. Everyone wants to be something else — you’d be hard-pressed to find one!”
Sex With Strangers runs through Aug. 31.
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