Sexual sparks fly when a prim-and-proper one-flop-wonder of a novelist and a best-selling chronicler of a year’s worth of one-night stands find themselves the only guests in a rural bed-and-breakfast in Sex With Strangers, Laura Eason’s provocative, conversation-provoking, undeniably sexy dramedy, now making its Los Angeles debut at the Geffen Playhouse.
The last thing pushing-40 Olivia (Rebecca Pidgeon) is expecting this snowy winter night is to find herself alone with 20something Ethan (Stephen Louis Grush), but this is precisely what happens when the sex-blogger better known as “Ethan Strange” shows up at the b-&-b Olivia is currently occupying all by her lonesome.
But hey, he’s got a reservation, and once the shaved-headed hottie has gotten over his dismay at being unable to go online (or even use his cell phone, the inn’s wifi being kaput until further notice), the twosome find themselves comparing life stories over glass after glass of wine.
The recovering victim of some very bad marketing (her first novel got generally good notices but failed to reach its target audience), Olivia has been making ends meet by teaching college courses while putting the finishing touches on what she hopes will get her fiction back on bookstore display tables.
Ethan, on the other hand, could hardly care less about seeing himself in hard copy, a bet with friends that he could bed a stranger a week the old-fashioned singles-bar way having paid off in a viral blog turned New York Times bestseller (not so coincidentally titled Sex With Strangers), about to be given the Hollywood treatment.
Olivia may never have heard of Ethan, but the same cannot be said of the younger man, who it turns out is not only a fan of her only published novel, but may have shown up at the b-&-b precisely with the intention of meeting the object of his literary affection face to face, body to body.
Given Ethan’s stellar track record with women (many of the more than fifty-two he slept with have themselves blogged enthusiastically about their sexploits), it should hardly come as a surprise that Olivia will soon be finding herself the next notch on Ethan’s much-notched belt.
Far less easy to divine is just what’s going on in the younger man’s mind, which is just one reason why Eason’s play keeps you on the edge of your seat all the way up to the “Oh, my God!” discovery Olivia makes just before the lights black out for intermission.
Sex With Stranger’s second act doesn’t quite live up to first act expectations once we travel to Olivia’s Chicago apartment. Still, there’s still no denying that a tale of mismatched lovers alternately attracting and repelling each other remains as appealing in this Internet age as it has been perhaps all the way back to the Greeks. (It’s particularly fun to see how Ethan’s dependence on his smartphone rankles Olivia even as she finds her inner flames increasingly fanned by the tattoo-covered stranger before her.)
Under Kimberly Senior’s incisive direction, Pidgeon and Grush not only act up a storm but display so much body heat between them that you’ll likely find your interest unflagging throughout the play’s brisk two hours.
The Geffen’s intimate Audrey Skirball stage proves the ideal venue for Eason’s two-hander, and if the Michigan inn happens coincidentally to resemble Olivia’s Chicago digs, scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer’s surround set scores points for situating us inside both locales, with Josh Epstein’s lighting design adding impact throughout. Elisa Benzoni’s costumes are terrific character choices, though swifter backstage outfit changes could facilitate faster scene-switching. Fortunately, those frequent scene changes are accompanied by Cricket S. Myer’s buoyant musical underscoring, and the sound designer’s multiple effects are equally fine.
Julie Haber is production stage manager. Kristen Osborn is assistant director. Casting is by Phyllis Schuringa, CSA. Amy Motta and Brandon Ruiter are understudies.
Though not quite as all-around perfect as the just closed Barcelona, Sex With Strangers makes it abundantly clear that you don’t need a big bunch of actors onstage to make things sizzle at the Geffen. A terrific twosome proves more than enough.
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles.
March 17, 2106
Photos: Michael Lamont