|"Did you write the hot one?"|
|"Let's go celebrate!"|
|"There are 57 comments."|
|"I can't believe you said that."|
|"You did it - I'm proud of you"|
|"My app launched last night"|
|"Let's go to Paris"|
|"Well, there is one thing we could do . . . "|
|"Want some wine?"|
Theater Review: Shaker Bridge Produces a Clever Comic Romance
By Nicola Smith
By Nicola Smith
Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, January 23, 2016
(Published in print: Saturday, January 23, 2016)
In Laura Eason’s smart, funny, two-person play Sex with Strangers, currently at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield, Ethan Strange, a loquacious, hyper-confident, mid-20s blogger who seems defined more by his media “platform” than actual talent , meets Olivia, an insecure, prickly and obscure but gifted writer on the verge of turning 40.
Ethan arrives in the middle of a snowstorm at an isolated, rural B&B in Michigan that doubles as a writer’s retreat. Olivia is polishing a draft of her second novel and is not at all happy when Ethan, there to work on a screenplay, breezes in, expecting to find WiFi (nope), food (just Cheerios) and chatty conversation (forget it).
Ethan, whose philosophy can be summed up as “I tweet, therefore I am,” is stunned that his phone can’t pick up a wireless signal, which, like many of his generation, he regards as a birthright, a moment that Jackson Thompson plays with a perfectly judged, comic display of you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me disbelief.
For her part, Olivia, played by Laura Woyasz with an appealing combination of vulnerability and self-assurance, can’t believe she’s been marooned with a guy whose reputation rests on his blog-turned-book “Sex With Strangers”, in which Ethan writes a no-holds-barred, misogynistic account of his sexual exploits with scores of women.
Predictably but entertainingly, these two individuals, who could not be more dissimilar, set off romantic and sexual sparks. It turns out that Ethan has an agenda: he’s read Olivia’s first and only novel, which he tells her is brilliant. He thinks she’s underrated and deserves a wider literary audience. He offers not only to help get Olivia’s second novel published as an e-book, but also to re-release her first novel through an app he’s developing which will be devoted to discovering new writing.
Olivia is tempted, but suspicious. What’s in it for him? Why is he being so nice? Who’s the real Ethan: the crass, online Lothario or this disarmingly sincere, even gentle, young man? How can she take seriously a man who’s made a lot of money from trafficking in the most salacious details of his relationships and who regards the notion of privacy as so 20th century, like a rotary phone or the first IBM mainframe computer?
The considerable pleasure of watching Sex with Strangers is seeing how these two people spar, yet forge a real bond based on both physical and emotional attraction. I’d say intellectual attraction, but Olivia is the intellectual heavyweight here, while Ethan has much to learn — about books, writing and not least, women.
She’s appalled by just how ignorant he is about literature, which is her life’s blood, but also finds his unpretentious candor appealing. He doesn’t pretend to be other than an immature guy interesting in making a lot of money. Until, of course, he reveals himself to have his own serious literary aspirations. And when Olivia, with Ethan’s help, begins to find literary fame, the balance between them begins to shift. Who’s the acolyte now?
On one level, Eason, who was the former artistic director of Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago and has written for the Emmy-nominated drama House of Cards on Netflix, has constructed an evening of solid comic entertainment , with frequent laughs arising out of the disjunction between Ethan and Olivia, particularly in the first act.
On another level, she’s examining the enormous cultural divide between those who live on and through social media, and those who either disdain it or just haven’t come to grips with it . The implications of this change are so enormous that we can’t be certain how it’s all going to shake out for future generations.
What does it mean to reveal almost everything about oneself online? How do you give people the benefit of the doubt if you’ve already researched every single detail about them on the Internet, and dismissed or embraced them accordingly? Does the Internet, which seems, on the surface, to be more open and democratic, actually have the effect of sorting people into like-minded camps? Do we really want to know what everyone is thinking from minute to minute?
Eason also ventures onto the always fertile ground of artistic ambition and jealousy, which often go hand-in-hand. It’s easy to be complimentary when one person is up, and the other down, but when they draw even that complicates things mightily.
Jackson Thompson and Laura Woyasz, who was last seen at Shaker Bridge in David Ives’ Venus in Fur, are well-matched. Thompson, acting at Shaker Bridge for the first but not, I hope, the last time, has a keen radar not only for Ethan’s frequent displays of adolescent entitlement, but also his sincere generosity and astute insight, even when he’s pulling the kind of controlling stunts that rightfully infuriate Olivia.
Woyasz’s performance is finely calibrated, as she portrays not only Olivia’s thwarted literary ambition and raging self-doubts about her career, but also her unshaken confidence in her intellectual and literary judgment.
There’s a scene early on in which Ethan talks to Olivia about her first book. Olivia’s been prepared to dismiss him as a know-nothing until he talks intelligently about her writing. And when Ethan tells Olivia that he can help her reach the audience she deserves, watch Woyasz’s face as she see-saws between skepticism and hope, wanting to believe him but distrusting him at the same time.
The second act takes a turn toward straight drama, which isn’t quite as successful as the humor of the first act. And the play has an ending that seems a bit too easy. To say more would be to venture into spoiler territory. Let’s just say that the ending holds out an ambiguous promise, which isn’t entirely persuasive, given what’s come before.
But that’s a quibble for a production that is well acted by Woyasz and Thompson, and deftly staged by Bill Coons, Shaker Bridge’s artistic director, who has the gift of making actors on his stage seem as natural as can be.
Sex With Strangers continues through Feb. 7 at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield. For tickets and information go to shakerbridgetheatre.org or call 603-448-3750.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.