Review: ‘Sex with Strangers’ at Philadelphia Theatre Company

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You’d probably expect a play with a title like Sex with Strangers to be provocative, entertaining and, well, sexy. And Laura Eason’s play is all that and then some. It’s not a perfect play; it tends to deal with complex issues in a superficial way. But Director David Saint’s nimble production at Philadelphia Theatre Company (a co-production with the George Street Playhouse) is a smart, breezy, enjoyable way to spend a couple hours.

Kyle Coffman and Joanna Rhinehart. Photo by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of George Street Playhouse.
Kyle Coffman and Joanna Rhinehart. Photo by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of George Street Playhouse.

Eason’s play opens in a rural Michigan cabin where Olivia Lago (Joanna Rhinehart) has retreated to write her new book. She’s had one book published, but it flopped after being mistakenly marketed as “chick lit.” Now approaching 40, she’s marking time as a teacher, hoping vaguely that her dreams of literary success might come true someday. She’s a reserved, cautious person, and she’s practically the textbook definition of a serious writer.

Into her life barges Ethan Kane (Kyle Coffman), a 20-something whirlwind with a soul patch and a mop of blue-streaked hair, who shows up at her door (after a series of fishy plot complications) in the middle of a blinding snowstorm. He’s an author too, but of a far different type than Olivia. He’s the creator of Sex with Strangers, a blog where he writes every week about the random women he picks up at bars and has sex with. He’s turned his blog into a series of bestsellers (“We sell a lot of copies at airports”), and now he’s trying to turn the books into a screenplay.

Olivia has never read Ethan’s work, but she’s immediately repulsed by his description of it. “How is this not porn?” she asks. “No pictures,” he replies. He sure seems like “a certifiable asshole” (as he puts it), but he claims his loutish image is just an act he puts on for his readers. “I’m one of the good guys – relatively,” he says. “You are like the modern day Mother Teresa,” she retorts sarcastically.

But Ethan has read Olivia’s obscure first book, and when he starts quoting her work back to her, she can’t resist his charms. This leads to the first of several sex scenes (although, despite the play’s salacious title, most of the action in Sex with Strangers actually takes place offstage).

From there, Eason fleshes out her characters by contrasting them. She’s a mature woman; he’s a brash young upstart. She loves the feel of books in her hand; he reads eBooks and has a panic attack when the internet is down. She’s well-versed in the great books; he’s literate but not well-read (“I’m a little bit behind on the dead people, but I’m catching up”). He aspires to literary respectability; she hopes to make enough money to quit her teaching job.

Eason has filled Sex with Strangers with sharp, pithy, funny lines. It’s a fun play to watch. And there is enough name-dropping of famous authors and publishers to give the play the ring of authenticity.

It’s a shame, though, that Eason relies too much on hackneyed plot lines, like having Olivia tell Ethan not to read the draft of her new book; you know he’s going to read it anyway, and you know something bad will happen as a result. (And when Ethan tells Olivia not to read his work, you know the same thing will happen all over again.)

Ethan turns out to be just as much of a smug jerk as he first appears, but it’s to Coffman’s credit that the character doesn’t become completely unlikable. Meanwhile, we watch Olivia grow from a naïve aspirant to a confident, successful author, even though she never gains the upper hand in the relationship. Rhinehart comes off as too passive during the opening scenes, but her portrayal grows in confidence and strength as the play goes on.

And the play brings up some important issues but doesn’t delve into them deeply enough. Act Two deals with business deals, betrayal, and ethical transgressions – but just when you might think you’re about to witness some soul-searching exploration of these issues, the play skips forward in time.

Kyle Coffman and Joanna Rhinehart. Photo by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of George Street Playhouse.
Kyle Coffman and Joanna Rhinehart. Photo by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of George Street Playhouse.

Scott Killian provided the music – drums and electronic blips for the sex scenes, piano and cello for the morning after, guitar and synthesizer for other scenes, which I felt lacked cohesion. Christopher Bailey’s lighting repeatedly signaled the end of a scene by fading down a minute or so before the action ends, a frustrating technique that got in the way of the storytelling. But Jason Simms’ sets for the cabin and Olivia’s apartment are so inviting you’ll want to move in yourself.

Sex with Strangers is an absorbing, thought-provoking piece of theatre. Saint keeps things moving quickly, and the two performers are appealing, with a spark between them that keeps things lively.

Running Time: Two hours, including an intermission.

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Sex with Strangers plays through May 8, 2016 at Philadelphia Theatre Company, performing at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre – Broad and Lombard Streets, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 985-0420, or purchase them online.