Sex with Strangers, by US screenwriter Laura Eason, sounds as though it’s a play about just that but all the casual hooking up has happened in the past. One of this two-hander’s characters, Ethan (Will Atkinson) has made a career of treating women badly and exposing his unfortunate partners to exposure via his blog. This engagement with misogyny is proving successful – two books on the New York Times bestseller list with one being optioned for a film. He turns up at a writer’s retreat in the middle of a blizzard and invades the privacy of Olivia, a tortured writer about to turn 40 who has completed her second novel but is still traumatized by public reactions to her first book. They fall quickly in lust and Ethan decides to make a project of publicizing Olivia’s new book. The play’s opening contains the most dramatic moments and for my money, when it comes to dramatic tension, it heads south after the first 15 minutes. Ethan has actually sought Olivia out – but the script neither revisits this nor does Olivia react to it, which I found mysterious. We are invited to wonder about how Olivia can trust Ethan, who insists he’s moved beyond his public bad boy persona and is truly available to her.
The story is ostensibly about the generation divide when it comes to engagement with digital media. But this play is really about writerly ambition rather than their relationship; Olivia and Ethan are bookends in the world of writing and the business of publishing.
For a work with an underlying sexual theme this is an oddly unsexy ride, and it’s hard to care about the relationship stakes here. The problem is with the script which allows too much confluence between the characters and too little to wonder about. Where’s the subtext? And it's all conversation and nothing else. Gabriella Rose-Carter directs this woefully overly-wordy play and wastes a lot of time having the characters changing their clothes to indicate time shifts. There are much more economical ways of doing this. But it’s hard when characters are given nothing to do but talk. Also, the public conversation about online privacy has moved further than when the play was first conceived in 2009 and there are some predictable exchanges between the two mouthpieces here on the subject. Olivia's internal conflict when she finds out how disrespectfully Ethan has treated women isn't as drawn out as you'd hope but is far more interesting than what actually develops. Surely that's the real story, but the play engages more about which publishing platform she will go with. Performances are fine although Atkinson’s brash Ethan inhabits a wider range of emotion and physicality than does McAllen’s Olivia. Sex with Strangers is definitely entertaining and of interest if you’re a writer yourself but is thin in terms of psychological satisfaction.
Q44 Theatre presents
Sex With Strangers
by Laura Eason
Directed by Gabriella Rose-Carter
Venue: Q44 Theatre | 1st Floor, 550 Swan St, Richmond VIC
Dates: 17 Aug – 3 Sep 2016