Sex with Strangers
The Ink Never Dries on the Web
By Laura Eason
Signature Theatre, Arlington, Virginia
Saturday, November 15, 2014, C–105 & 107 (center of studio theater)
Directed by Aaron Posner
Ethan (Luigi Sottile) moves in for a kiss with Olivia (Holly Twyford) as they wait out a winter storm in a vacation lodge in Signature Theatre's production of Laura Eason's Sex with Strangers. Photo by Theresa Wood, Signature Theater.
I'll say it up front: if a play has Sex in the title and Holly Twyford in the cast, I'm there. Throw in Aaron Posner as director, and I'm really there. And while I'm at it, if I had known anything of Luigi Sottile before seeing this production, he would have been another attraction.
However, our certainties are actually speculations, what we know may not be real, and truth is transient. This is not to say that the sex isn't good in Laura Eason's Sex with Strangers (it is, though most of it happens offstage), that Twyford isn't great (she goes far beyond that adjective), or that Posner doesn't deliver (he does, with noticeably skillful work from his design team). This is to point to the underlying message in Eason's play, where reality might be made up and fiction is seen as the real truth. Eason's play, first produced by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 2009 and premiering in New York at Second Stage Theatre this year, is now running at Signature in Arlington, Va., with local theater legend Twyford and Chicago import Sottile in its two roles.
Here's the setup. Olivia (Twyford) is an author who has published one reportedly great book of fiction, but because the publisher gave it a chick lit cover, it received poor reviews and worse sales. She's now a teacher of writing at a college, and she's written a second book but closely guards the manuscript as she continues dwelling on the psychological wounds yet unhealed from the beating her first book took. She is vacationing at a private lodge during a massive winter storm when Ethan (Sottile) shows up. He is a pop culture star thanks to his blogging the details of his sexual hookups with women, which in turn inspired a comment board by the women he slept with. That led him to write a New York Times best-selling book, which is now being made into a movie. The title of his book—his brand, really—is Sex with Strangers.
If this sounds like a typical opposites-attract plotline, Eason almost immediately shifts the ground on us. It turns out that Ethan knows his fame is based on persona, not true talent, and he wants to be a serious writer. Not only has he read Olivia's first book, he maneuvered to be at the lodge so that he could meet her. At least, this is what he tells her. The sexual attraction heats up between them. "You are into me," Ethan observes, and Olivia pshaws but, yeah, she's into him. She stalls, but not because she is a prude. In fact, she speaks the play's manifesto on one-night stands: Sex with strangers means no expectations, no disappointment. Rather, she is concerned about age difference (she's roughly 20 years his senior) and her concern that she will end up on his blog. He assures her he will never write about what happens between them.
Yeah, you know where this is going. And you'd be wrong. The moral of the play is how private lives, including one-night stands, can become public domain and remain so in perpetuity—this is on the play's promotional material. But how that idea plays out is what generates far-reaching the moral and social insinuations.
Typically, the great fear of the Internet in terms of reputation is the posting of embarrassing photos, hostile e-mails going beyond their intended recipient, guarded identities on blog posts being revealed, stupid tweets going viral, or personal information going public. Sex with Strangers, however, turns these fears around: What if the Internet is intentionally used to create a shady reputation? That's a great way to quickly build a high-earning brand, but it can stick like moldy soap scum in a shower stall when you want to move beyond that brand and be taken seriously. Justin Beiber, for example, is more famous now for being a jerk than a legitimate musician; if he ever becomes a respectable musician again, legitimacy may not yet follow. "Johnny Football" Manziel loves the spotlight his arrogance and party life generate, and linebackers on opposing teams love the spotlight that comes with piledriving his arrogance into the tundra—that is, if Manziel ever plays another down.
Such is Ethan's situation. He has built a brand with his blog that turned into a best-selling book and a movie even the Farrelly Brothers might deem beneath them. Meanwhile, his true desire is to be a legitimate novelist, and he has written a book he considers truly great (we later get evidence that it is). Not only that, he is putting his technical savvy to the purpose of promoting great modern literature with a mobile app through which readers can download old and new material from established authors. He starts with Olivia's first book.
Sex with Strangers evolves as a rom-com with both a generational and a pop culture twist. Ethan starts the relationship from a place of deep admiration for a woman who may be 20 years his senior but is still hot. He may sound like he's leading her on, but he enables her first book to gain a new life and he introduces her to his agent who takes her new manuscript to one of the elite publishing houses. When Ethan does betray Olivia, it's out of heartbreak, not malice; and, notably, his betrayal is really a calculated business decision that, because he backs out from a sense of guilt, backfires on him while benefiting her (she even wonders if he knew what the outcome would be; he admits he can't take that credit). I don't recall the word "love" being spoken between these two, but in the end, as Sottile plays him, Ethan is definitely in love with Olivia.
Olivia, on the other hand, starts from a place of fear and suspicion. She is devastated when Ethan reads her new manuscript behind her back, even though he loved it. She is apprehensive of the tricks he uses to get her first book on the pop culture radar. Yet, as she quickly becomes the successful novelist she always dreamed she could be, she becomes more mercenary than he. As Twyford plays her, Olivia is certainly in lust with Ethan and appreciates the attention he lavishes on her, but her judgmental nature causes her to keep an emotional space between them. And if you keep score, Ethan makes a promise and asks a promise from Olivia in return: he keeps his; she breaks hers.
A clue to one of the conundrums the play explores is the stage itself. Scenic Designer JD Madsen has incorporated a book motif into the entire set: the floor could be a parquet floor, but it actually has the appearance of books set on their sides and shellacked in paper stain. The walls similarly appear to be made of books, and the benches are most definitely built with books. When the action moves to Olivia's Chicago apartment, the set remains, but the windows and fireplace have become actual bookcases, with other books stacked and scattered everywhere. Andrew Cissna's lighting design creates wonderful moods, and Costume Designer Katherine Fritz tracks Olivia's increasing confidence by shifting her look from sweatshirt casual to power fashions. The fourth member of Posner's creative team is Sound Designer James Bigbee Garver, who contributes such effects as cars arriving through a snowstorm and Ethan's various cell phone ringtones.
Books are, effectively, the battleground on which the two cultures represented by Olivia and Ethan clash. She resists releasing her new book on Ethan's app because she wants her writing to be physically real, something she can hold in her hand and page through. Ironically, this desire is turned on its head at the play's crux moment, suggesting that what is real is not the medium but the words and the thoughts behind the words. The Internet, meanwhile, seems to be the realm of fleeting illusions, with rumors and misinformation constantly perpetuated by entities whose true identities are hidden behind user names and avatars. Anything and everything on the Web could lack authenticity. It's notable that, at the start of the play, the snowstorm has knocked the lodge off line. Ethan cannot get a signal, and his public life figuratively comes to an end: missing from his blog for a few days, he is presumed dead by his readers. This situation also leads to the play's first big laugh; as Ethan describes his fame to Olivia, she expresses doubt, and then suddenly looks lost, prompting Ethan to point out the obvious: she can't get online to check his veracity.
Olivia (Holly Twyford) protects her manuscript from Ethan (Luigi Sottile) in Laura Eason's Sex with Strangers at Signature Theatre. Photo by Theresa Wood, Signature Theatre.
But even when she can get online, she can't be sure of his veracity. Oh, he is what he says he is, the Sex with Strangers blogger and best-selling writer. But, he comes across as something much more: a misogynist so callous he puts women in physical danger as well as psychological and emotional vulnerability. He, however, argues that much of what is there, both the stories he tells and the accusations from some of the women, are exaggerations at the least if not blatantly false. You can't believe what you read online, he tells her. Yet, isn't it ironic how books—what Olivia considers "real"—have a way of being buried in obscurity, sometimes only surfacing in the footnotes of academic tomes, while Web matter never seems to disappear and can be had with any patient Googling or pinpoint word search. What Olivia claims is not "real" because she can't hold it in her hands becomes all too real to her, while Ethan knows it's not all real and yet his Internet persona has created a very real existence for him. He knows that to become a successful and respected novelist he will have to break the prison his sexcapades have created, but, starting with Olivia resisting an ongoing association with him, he slowly learns that the ink never dries on the Web. When, against his wishes, she finally reads Sex with Strangers, her blistering comment, what truly breaks his heart, is that "it lacks relevance."
Sex with strangers is generally a fleeting experience, though the one-off hookup can have lasting memories. What matters, Eason suggests in her play, is the lasting relationship, and, pointedly, Ethan seems more inclined to pursue such a relationship. He wants to take Olivia on dates; he assures her he will return to her after his Hollywood meeting. Olivia, on the other hand, resists even going out to dinner after the snowstorm lifts, and is certain she will never see him again when he leaves for Hollywood. That he remains very much a part of her life and becomes integral in her rejuvenated career clearly bothers her even as it pleases her, so she keeps him at arm's length; always within reach, and willing to pull in close for a kiss or caress.
As such, in this two-person play, the actress playing Olivia does the heavier lifting. Twyford is obtusely revelatory in a performance so full of nuance that we think we know what she's feeling but come to realize she herself may not be sure what she's feeling. From her initial disgust with this stranger who freely admits that he's acting like a d*** through her tentative acceptance of his seduction, through her trepidation when the relationship suddenly turns into a business opportunity, through her increasing self-confidence in her status as a writer who matters, to the final scene when she can't navigate the shoals of her feelings for Ethan—ranging from utter hate to continuing intrigue—Twyford is truth. The character is something of a conundrum—the woman may or may not be duplicitous, and even she can't be sure herself whether she is or not—but, like words on a computer screen, what Twyford gives us is seeming reality in every facial expression, posture, and line reading.
As ascendant a performance as Twyford gives, Sottile is never overmatched. Even though he's clearly a young, arrogant rascal, he is so appealingly seductive that every woman in that theater and many men—whether gay or straight—would give in to him. From that point, Sottile has the task of seeming to be a hero when, in fact, he is a hero. Why do we never trust him? Even at the end, looking back, we ask that question, and that we do is a credit to Sottile's portrayal.
You could call this Posner-helmed Sex with Strangers a master class in acting, but it's really a master class in life. Truth is not stranger than fiction: truth and fiction are flip sides of the same coin, and when that coin is flipped in online blogs and in real sexual relationships, it never really lands, heads or tails.
November 24, 2014