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‘Sex with Strangers’ at Signature Theatre

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Let’s get this out of the way. Sex with Strangers by Laura Eason (at Signature Theatre) is a slam-dunk champ. It is an easy crowd-pleaser on its polished comic surface, but, oh what a delicious depth it has!

Luigi Sottile (Ethan) and Holly Twyford (Olivia). Photo by Theresa Wood.

Luigi Sottile (Ethan) and Holly Twyford (Olivia). Photo by Theresa Wood.

While it’s Buzzfeed worthy title may get many into the door, Sex with Strangers is a really a delightfully intricate look into way beyond mere sex and its hot click-me title. Playwright Eason gives the audience a smart look at the new calculations people are making to find love or fame in an age of social media, brightly-lit smart phone screens, and virtual worlds. It is way more than Andy Warhol thought when he figured we all would have 15-minutes of fame.

Sex with Strangers is a top-notch acted, first-rate directed vision on the ways people can evolve in our now always changing, ephemeral, digital world.

For audiences, DC’s very own Holly Twyford continues her ascendancy into the upper reaches of acting heaven. Along with Luigi Sottile, a newcomer to the DC area, the tone-setting work of Director Aaron Posner and his crack technical design team, audience members will find themselves sitting in their sits with eyes-wide glee.

For those not familiar with playwright Eason, she is the author of many produced plays as well as a screenwriter. She was on the writing staff of season two and three of the Emmy-nominated Netflix show House of Cards.

Eason’s Sex with Strangers begins starts with an old cliché. It is a dark and stormy snowy night. We see a lone woman we will come to know as Olivia, in a darkened, very well appointed room. (Twyford in a fantastic naturalistic performance). She is napping on a couch, curled up hugging a pillow, having falling asleep after having some wine. She is awakened by a persistent loud knocking on the door.

Getting herself together, she finally lets the stranger in. He is a younger man named Ethan. He full of unconstrained energy and compulsive loud blathering (Luigi Sottile as the epitome of the sure-of-himself 20-something male used to getting what he wants without much effort). Olivia quickly and very robustly asks, “Who are you?” with the emphasis on the word “are.” Her face is not of fear, but of complete bewilderment and distrust, if not disgust at his tart tongue and bravado.

And off goes this roller-coaster ride of who may be using whom, who is chasing whom, and for what reasons. Don’t be taken in by first sights. This is a multiplex of clever dialogue and three-dimensional characters, who we probably know from real life. These two are neither television sitcom archetypes, or avatars playing out words and having sex.

To your reviewer, what you see in Sex with Strangers will be different depending on what you bring into Signature’s ARK. To be specific: are you a Baby Boomer, Gen X, Gen Y, or Millennial? Are you male or female? This matters, especially given the rich set-ups that Eason provided and established under Posner’s nifty, light-hand.

Sottile and Twyford explore dealing with the new rules of the digital age and virtual worlds of dating and of identity along with the ever increasing difficult balance between over-sharing and privacy. It is the bumping together of those who think books are a physical object and those who think books are pixels on a screen. It is the transition from looking something up in a library to doing a search on Google.

Twyford plays her character to a fare-the-well as sharp and sly after her initial hesitancy. We watch her awakened from a deep passionless life, into a full desire for intimacy, a lovely playfulness and something new; a business like, me-first ambition as an author. All, it seems, thanks to the unexpected spark of Sottile’s alluring, boisterous and even charming maleness. Both Twyford and Sottile are nuanced in their ways. Physical tics and mannerism present their characters even without dialogue. He takes up lots of physical space, with an entrepreneur’s attitude. He lives an invented fluid life. She often holding a pillow, hands moving about frenetically but with solid, physical books and a Cy Twombly poster and oodles of books giving her life meaning.

We come to gawk as Twyford and Sottile give off hints; and then blinking neon signs of their “new” selves. Even their definitions of trust seem topsy-turvy. Yes, there are reversals. Together the two are electric. As their connections become more hard-wired they feed off of one other, trying to embrace fresh ways of operating both as individuals and as some sort of team, both personal and professional.

Scenic Designer JD Madsen has produced two gorgeous eye-candy sets for the two act play, with plenty of rich details to give the air of a well-led, upper middle class life. Andrew Cissna’s lighting design shows how lights can enhance feelings and moods. Sound Designer James Bigbee Garver’s choices for pre-show music and the many scene changes move through sexy R&B sung, to violins and piano interludes. As for the costumes, Katherine Fritz takes Twyford from Eileen Fisher with her figure invisible under lovely floating fabrics, to outfits that showed her awakening sense of self. Sottile is an all-jeans kinda guy. Kudos to the efficient set and scene changers.

Now, if your reviewer was able to write in the dark and got it right, here is just a choice bit of dialogue:

Olivia: Why should I trust you?

Ethan: You probably shouldn’t.

Olivia: You seem like you might be an asshole.

Ethan: I’m not saying I’m not an asshole. I pretty much am an asshole. I’m just saying I won’t be an asshole to you.

Holly Twyford (Olivia) and Luigi Sottile (Ethan). Photo by Theresa Wood.

Holly Twyford (Olivia) and Luigi Sottile (Ethan). Photo by Theresa Wood.

As the performance wraps up, you get to decide plenty in your own mind. Signature Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer is quoted in marketing material, “Laura Easton’s Sex with Strangers captures the contemporary world of relationships and technology in a fresh, new way that is sure to resonate.” Yup, right on the button. Now, go and enjoy.

As for your reviewer, he will get out his long ago paperback copy of The Lover by Marguerite Duras.

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes, with one intermission.

Sex with Strangers plays through December 7, 2014 at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, Virginia. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online

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