Sex with Strangers, written by Laura Eason, is now on stage at Colonial Players. Directed by Dave Carter, this play about two writers navigating the difficulties of love in the digital age stars Elizabeth Hester as the aging Olivia and Dylan Roche as her younger, tech-savvy paramour Ethan.
The drama of writers is not always as romantic as it seems to the outside world. Ethan finds his writing persona and “brand” a mismatch with the type of writer he wants to be. Gifted, if somewhat old school, Olivia struggles to find a place for her voice in a world where the power has shifted from traditional publishing houses to self-publishing online. A blizzard tosses these two strangers into a haze of sex and attraction. For Ethan, the allure comes from his near-obsession with Olivia’s prose— Olivia concerns herself with him to satisfy a more immediate, physical need.
Writers have a way of getting under each other’s skin. Hester is wonderful as the wilting Olivia. She very much embodies the aging woman who has given up on success and settled for security. The conflict that she feels in continuing her relationship with Ethan is clear. She freezes. She relents. Her responses to his bad behavior are real and believable. She shrinks away from success and away from Ethan and away from being seen— until her raw talent makes her invisibility untenable.
Roche also does a superb job with Ethan’s character. In the first act, he plays someone who is a little too good to be true, a little too fawning to be innocent. Roche purposefully gives this character a sheen of superficiality, which we see stripped from him in the second act. Both actors work together to build a narrative in which one person falls prey to intellect and the other to lust. Love, in all of its messy forms, is never something stable and respectful between these writers. Objectification of the mind chases objectification of the body— the toxic passion of Olivia and Ethan is obvious in these performances.
Playwright Laura Eason walks a thin line with this work. During the second act, we witness the true nature of Ethan’s writing success. His five years on the New York Times Bestseller List are fueled by the dark reality of a collective social desire to exploit the suffering of women. Olivia finds her tryst with the younger man has taken a turn for something less light-hearted and she grapples with the reality of how Ethan behaves when he is alone with her, versus his public image. The narrative reaches its apex in a scene which sees Ethan and Olivia’s relationship is wrecked by complete, mutual annihilation of each other’s artistic identities.
Set Designer Edd Miller gives us a sparse writer’s retreat in a blizzard and an apartment in Chicago. The in-the-round staging allows us to see in to the nooks and crannies, populated by Properties Designer Jennifer Cooper. The set is somewhat chaotic, appropriately representing the inner world of the main characters. Olivia, in her element at the retreat, is believably distant. Ethan becomes more human in the city, surrounded by the people from whom he draws energy.
Sound Designer Sarah Wade chooses transitions for the scenes which are almost a little too on-the-mark. Act one opens with Alanis Morisette’s “Uninvited.” The musical selections— primarily pulled from the heyday of Alt Rock— were mostly welcome and appropriate. As a fan of most of the musicians featured during the scenes where Olivia and Ethan were about to engage in those “fade to black” acts, I found these additions to be emotionally fulfilling.
Lighting Designer Alex Brady does a service to the audience with perfectly-placed shifts between light and dark, which interplay with the narrative to create moments of passion and moments of honesty. The lighting serves its purpose perfectly. It adds to the mood instead of being distracting.
Sex with Strangers is a cerebral, self-aware drama about the implications of the masks we wear online and in our daily lives. Does our “personal brand” really speak the truth about who we are— or are our true selves better served when presented under a pseudonym? Don’t miss this edgy, engaging production at Colonial Players. The striking performances of the leads, in addition to the moral questions raised by the narrative, make this show a must-see.