Sex With Strangers Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Laura Eason’s Sex With Strangers brims with ideas. Its aim, as described in the program for this Steppenwolf Theatre production, is to look at how the “contemporary landscape of technological communication” impacts “both interpersonal relationships and the construction of authorial identity.” A timely theme, but Eason has failed to create a credible or compelling context in which to explore it.
Eason dealt with similar issues in 28: Pictures of Life in a High-Tech World, which she conceived and directed for her own company, Lookingglass Theatre, back in 1997. Her subject then was television and the short-attention-span culture, which she evoked by jump-cutting between vignettes featuring various unrelated characters. In Sex With Strangers, she uses a single couple to examine how the Internet shapes public discourse and personal connection.
The pair are Chicago writers Ethan and Olivia, who meet one wintry weekend at a B and B in rural Michigan, where each has gone to work in seclusion. Eason has rather too neatly set them up to represent different generations with different attitudes toward the Internet. He’s a charming and cocky 24-year-old, she’s insecure, accommodating, and 39. He’s addicted to his cell phone, she’s a private person who loves books. He’s a blogger who’s turned his popular “Internet memoir”—a chronicle of raunchy sexploits—into a best seller called Sex With Strangers, she’s a serious novelist whose confidence was crushed by the negative reviews and negligible sales that greeted her first book. His current project is to whip Sex into a screenplay, hers is to overcome her writer’s block by composing a new novel that she intends never to publish, thereby removing any worries about what people will think.
Ethan admits to being a self-centered “asshole,” but only toward other assholes, a category that apparently includes every woman he’s slept with. He mocks them on his blog, knowing they’re mocking him on theirs. (“Isn’t there anything you want to keep private?” Olivia asks. “Why?” he asks back.) But now we’re supposed to believe he’s ready for a serious relationship with Olivia, whose out-of-print book he happens to have read and admired. Thanks to a snowstorm, they’re alone at the inn. There is no Internet access, no WiFi, no cell phone signal, not even a TV. Add a bottle of wine, and before you can say “scene one, blackout,” they’re in each other’s arms.
Everything happens just that easily, not only in the opening scene but throughout the play. Ethan encourages Olivia to post her new novel online, a bit at a time, so readers won’t get bored. She’s resistant at first; for her, literature is a long process in which a writer holes up alone, gives birth to the text, delivers it to her publisher, and waits for the reviews. Ethan shows her that she can bypass editors, publishers, and critics. “You don’t have to get anyone’s permission anymore,” he tells her. He helps her set up a blog and kick-starts interest by posting fake comments, pro and con. Soon Olivia has attracted the attention of a major publisher. All she’s got to do is make a few changes—you know, to make the story more commercial.
Under Jessica Thebus’s direction, Stephen Louis Grush succeeds in portraying Ethan as a likable narcissist. But despite her engaging presence onstage, Sally Murphy can’t make sense of Olivia. Never for a moment did I believe that this sensitive, smart, confused woman would commit to a relationship with a kiss-and-tell misogynist who not only boasts but posts. Nor could I accept the idea that she’d believe Ethan’s pledge never to write about her online.
It’s all too convenient to be believed. Last-minute plot complications are resolved predictably. The choices the characters are asked to make, the rise and fall of their relationship, are as obvious as the cultural, generational, and sexual demographics they represent. Surely, I kept thinking, Eason has something else up her sleeve. But she doesn’t.