'Sex with Strangers': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Terrific performances and snappy dialogue boost this entertaining and thoughtful dramedy.

Anna Gunn ("Breaking Bad") and Billy Magnussen ("Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike") co-star in Laura Eason's comedy/drama about the romantic and professional collaboration between a serious novelist and a sex-obsessed blogger.

A play called Sex with Strangers better pack some erotic heat, and the Second Stage Theatre production of Laura Eason’s comedy/drama, directed by David Schwimmer, aka Ross Geller from Friends, does that in spades. Co-starring Emmy Award winner Anna Gunn of Breaking Bad fame and Billy Magnussen, a Tony nominee for Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, this entertaining two-hander is both sexually and intellectually provocative.

The play, which premiered in 2011 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, concerns the complexities of love and career ambition in the internet age. It depicts the personal and professional collision between Olivia, a gifted but failed novelist pushing forty, and Ethan, a 28-year-old blogger and self-described “asshole” writing under the name “Ethan Strange” who’s parlayed his tawdry online accounts of serial hookups into books that have hit the New York Times bestseller list. (Any resemblance between the character and Tucker Max, author of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, is surely not coincidental).

The two disparate types meet up in the dead of winter at a remote Michigan B&B writer’s retreat, where they are the sole guests. Upon arrival, the perpetually wired (in both senses of the word) Ethan is aghast to discover that there’s no internet or cell phone service available, frantically and constantly checking his phone like a drowning man gasping for air.   

Free of any technological distractions, Ethan soon sets about seducing the bemused Olivia, who treats the younger man as if he was a hyperactive child. But despite his braggadocio, he also possesses an undeniable charm, and he’s armed with a secret weapon. He’s read Olivia’s novel, which generated negligible sales and mixed reviews, and he showers her with effusive praise for her literary talent. He seals the deal when he quotes from the book, with the pair soon engaged in a torrid clinch.

The next day, although initially resistant to Ethan’s attempts at affection — “I hate to reminisce about sex,” Olivia says when asked about the previous night’s encounter — the two begin a tentative relationship despite her understandable wariness of his past sexual exploits. He soon tries to persuade her let him use his mastery of social media to get her latest novel, which she has no intention of letting anyone seeing, into the blogosphere.

The collision between the characters’ attitudes toward their profession — she disdains e-books and longs to be published by a reputable firm, while he champions the new mode of electronic self-distribution — forms the heart of the play. Playwright Eason, who also works as a staff writer on Netflix’s House of Cards, has a knack for incisive characterization and snappy dialogue — “Smells like the future,” Olivia comments ironically when Ethan gifts her with an iPad — that renders the personal and intellectual conflicts fully convincing. Eventually Olivia succumbs to Ethan’s blandishments, letting him post her novel online and reaping significant attention and praise as a result. Although the play falters somewhat in the second act as the characters’ positions become reversed in melodramatic fashion, the smartness of the writing sees it through.

Director David Schwimmer of Friends fame has given the play a polished, fast-paced production that emphasizes the erotic heat between the characters. Gunn, looking gorgeously sleek and sultry, beautifully conveys the sexual hunger that makes Olivia forgo her innate wariness and vulnerability. Magnussen, frequently displaying his impeccably toned body much as he did in the Durang comedy, makes her succumbing to Ethan’s advances fully credible, while displaying crack comedic timing that renders his character winning even when we’re never quite sure of his true motivations.

Although the play deals with its themes in little more than superficial fashion, it boasts an immediacy and attention to authentic detail (Olivia practically swoons at the prospect of being published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) that makes it consistently engrossing. Much like the situation referred to in its title, it’s not wholly satisfying, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Cast: Anna Gunn, Billy Magnussen

Playwright: Laura Eason

Director: David Schwimmer

Set designer: Andromache Chalfant

Costume designer: ESosa

Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman

Sound designer: Fitz Patton

Presented by Second Stage Theatre