Laura Eason’s new off-Broadway play has a tantalising title, Sex with Strangers, and the thrill-seeking theatregoer will be reassured to know that in its first act, there is ample fornication. Fending for themselves in a wintry bed & breakfast in Michigan, Olivia and Ethan, the two characters of this entertaining and thoughtful yet prolonged drama, lunge into lovemaking with a gusto not glimpsed even in the recent trailer for Fifty Shades of Grey.
If, however, Eason’s title entices with the promise of eroticism, her play turns out to be surprisingly high-minded. Olivia and Ethan, you see, are writers: she has published a tepidly received novel and is finishing a second; he has made his fortune with a book called Sex with Strangers, based on a popular blog describing, in sometimes humiliating detail, his encounters with women. He has a poetic soul, though, and he wants to write a novel that Olivia, along with his half-million Twitter followers, will take seriously.
So eager is Ethan to bring Olivia to a wider audience that he hatches a plan to republish her first book online, garnished with a nom de plume and fake reviews. Initially, she resists: she is only 40-ish, but her belief in letting the work, not her life, sell the merchandise is worthy of Edith Wharton. Yet as she falls for Ethan emotionally, she succumbs to his professional advice.
The director, David Schwimmer (of Friends fame), has cast his actors impeccably. As Olivia, Anna Gunn – who played Skyler White in Breaking Bad and who will star in the American remake of ITV drama Broadchurch – lends the character just the right blend of vulnerability and ambition.
As Ethan, Billy Magnussen bounds on to the scene with puppyish energy and delivers the kind of expert slacker line readings that had me wondering why he doesn’t have his own sitcom. In Christopher Durang’s recent comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Magnussen played a character who had never heard of Chekhov. In Sex with Strangers, he reads Zadie Smith!
Eason’s touchstones are less novelistic. Sex with Strangers echoes Donald Margulies’ 1996 stage drama about two writers, Collected Stories, right down to the final moment of bolting and unbolting a door. The chief problem of Sex, however, is not that it is derivative but that it fails to sustain narrative suspense. The second act, which takes place in Chicago, continues Olivia and Ethan’s relationship in a manner that strains credulity.