Sex With Strangers
Sex With Strangers Credit: Mark Campbell

Steppenwolf Theatre’s First Look Repertory of New Work is as clever as they come. Not only does the five-year-old program offer selected playwrights a chance to take their scripts through a to-die-for development process (access to the resources of America’s greatest ensemble theater, a full-out staging at the end), it also works as an incubator for patrons. Theater lovers can sign up to be flies on the wall at First Look meetings and rehearsals, learning what goes into preparing a play for its premiere and supplying feedback if anybody asks. Imagine the investment you’d have in the show after an experience like that. Steppenwolf is developing stakeholders as well as art—a cadre of institutional BFFs.

None of the three pieces getting the First Look treatment this year is an unqualified success, but they all deserve the privileges of the program. It’s great to see new work given the loving attention, expertise, and talent on display here.

Still, it would be a little greater yet if more of those new works had come from new playwrights. Of the writers, two are well-established, well-connected old hands who have other high-quality workshopping opportunities at their disposal. Eric Simonson (Honest) is a Steppenwolf ensemble member and Oscar-winning documentarian whose Fake will open Steppenwolf’s main-stage season this fall; Laura Eason (Sex With Strangers) is a Lookingglass Theatre ensemble member with loads of production credits, including a previous First Look stint. Even the relative kid of the bunch—26-year-old Laura Jacqmin (Ski Dubai)—is already plugged in to the national nonprofit network. Her bona fides include a $25,000 Wasserstein Award.

In Simonson’s Honest, Guy has published a best-selling memoir chronicling his descent into addiction, homelessness, and, er, radical environmentalism. Lean and hungry Martin has arrived to interview him for Slate, carrying two tape recorders (one for backup) and a Post-It-festooned copy of Guy’s book. It seems certain details don’t add up.

Martin doesn’t know the half of it. Nor is he prepared for the smooth, fierce hardball Guy’s willing to play to protect his story, his book, his success, and his self-created persona.

The best thing about Honest is that it concerns more than a pack of lies passed off as facts. As Guy plumbs Martin, looking for a way to corrupt him, the play becomes an inquiry into the notions of identity and integrity, and how the two connect. At least it flirts with becoming that—the worst thing about Honest is its failure to stick with the best thing. Simonson spikes the scenes between Guy and Martin with substantial flashbacks meant to identify the Rosebud in Guy’s past. Gradually, cagily, we’re let in on a scandalous secret that looks like the key to everything but actually illuminates very little that matters. Inadequate to the job of explaining Guy’s behavior, the secret ends up trivializing it: he’s just acting this way because. . . . The flashbacks ultimately come off as padding and distraction.

Like Honest, Eason’s two-act Sex With Strangers deals with constructed identity. A writer closing in on middle age, Olivia is holed up at a bed-and-breakfast-cum-artists’ retreat, working on a novel she’s not planning to publish because she still feels so defeated by the response to the first one. Then she reluctantly shares some wine with Ethan, a 24-year-old tattooed hunk building a minor media empire around his blog Sex With Strangers. He’s already got the best-selling book; he’s checked into the B and B to finish the screenplay.

In a moment that will resonate with anybody who’s ever written anything, Ethan sweeps Olivia off her feet by quoting lines from her first novel. They go at it like teenagers, but during breathers he takes her in hand, showing her how to flourish in the digital environment by doing exactly what he’s done: creating an online persona that triggers some buzz around the writing .

It works. By act two, she’s got a respectably successful novel of her own. But the public personas they’ve created begin to subvert their relationship.

Sex With Strangers telegraphs its structure, and Olivia and Ethan talk so much. But the telegraphing doesn’t necessarily make it predictable, and the play probably speaks better to a demographic of which I’m not a member. Eason’s play is essentially a chick flick for the stage: the talking is the point.

Whomever it’s meant for, it offers well-defined characters (especially Amy J. Carle’s difficult, seductive, somehow seductive-because-she’s-so-difficult Olivia) and doesn’t shy away from the questions it raises about identity. Indeed, Eason has cannily made those questions inseparable from Olivia and Ethan’s romance.

The only comedy in the bunch, Jacqmin’s Ski Dubai takes the innocents abroad scenario to the current Middle East. Rachel is a young American architect posted to Dubai—that Arab mega-Vegas-in-the-making—to consult on environmentally friendly policies for a project that involves building a perfectly circular island in the Persian Gulf and filling it with skyscrapers. Her task is laughably quixotic, and the play chronicles her rude awakening. A running gag has her going to her Arab superior with successively less ambitious proposals for platinum, gold, silver, and, finally, oreless LEED certification.

Jacqmin does an excellent job with the absurdities of the situation. But she’s also a slave to the whimsical mode in current playwriting. The style can sometimes yield haunting images, like one where the Dubai nightscape periodically seems to float through Rachel’s apartment. More often than not, however, the results are too cute by half, and the ending is a complete cop-out.

Director Lisa Portes plays right into Jacqmin’s excesses, pushing the production to an annoyingly shrill pitch. Of the three shows, this was the only one that I felt developed in a way that worked against the script.