Steppenwolf’s Sex with Strangers, written by Laura Eason and directed by Jessica Thebus, is a slow-moving, contemporary narrative about two writers who fumble into a series of hook-ups with each other as they simultaneously navigate through their respective writing careers. While their relationship at first seems transient, it soon becomes consequential, and the play craftily focuses on the progression of this relationship.
Laura Eason’s writing is very much in tune with the cyber world and the casual male-female relationships that form today. Because this story surrounds an online blog (a sex blog, nonetheless!) this play is most apt for audiences looking to not only delve more deeply into the world of romance but also into the modern consciousness of our world today (the Y2K!). While I found the first act to be a bit slow-moving and uneventful, the plot and the pace picked up in the second act and I found myself more enveloped by the storyline. Interestingly, Eason is able to write a thought-provoking story without the need to move mountains with the plot. Because the entire story takes place within a very small time span (aside from the very last part of the show), the audience is pushed to look more deeply into the relationship that forms between Ethan and Olivia and pay attention to the characters themselves and the way in which their relationship triggers their actions. Thus, while not a ‘riveting’ story propelled by plot, this more simple, introspective script allows the audience to intimately follow the trajectory of the characters. Moreover, because the love between the two characters is so unstable and changing, the play, to its merit, is less formulaic and more unpredictable than the typical love story.
I should note that in the performance I saw, Sally Murphy’s understudy, Brenda Barrie, played the role of Olivia. As such, I ask that you take both my criticisms and adorations for Barrie with moderate consideration, as Murphy may very well play the part quite differently. I will say however, that I would be very interested in seeing the play again, with lead Sally Murphy instead, so to see how differently the chemistry plays out between Ethan and Olivia, because the play is precisely about that chemistry.
Additionally, it would be interesting to see the larger age gap between Grush and Murphy as opposed to the lesser (if any!) age gap that appears to exist between Grush and Barrie. Because the script calls for and often refers to the fact that Ethan is 24 and Olivia is 40, it was a bit distracting that Barrie, the understudy, seemed to be well under 40 and quite close in age to Grush. Really physically seeing the difference in age and thus better believing it, with lead Sally Murphy playing the part, would thus also impact the way I might see the play.
Stephen Louis Gursh plays the part of Ethan incredibly naturally. A harsh, biting, cocky, and uninhibited 24 year old male, he knows he’s the shit and commands the stage with his macho presence. He is striking to watch and commands the stage quite differently from the quieter, more private Olivia (Brenda Barrie). I appreciated the complexity Eason gives to Ethan’s character, for it makes him more dynamic and authentic. To Olivia, he is a charming, loving, attentive boyfriend but on the phone with his bros and with the many women he emotionlessly hooks up with, he’s an uncouth, cursing, chauvinistic, pimp. We see in him partially the truth in us all---that we act differently with different people in our lives. Like Ethan, our own personalities often change depending on who we are associating with at any given moment. Ethan clearly possesses chameleonaire attributes, as do most of us.
Barrie plays the role of Sally Murphy in a relaxed manner as she commandeers the role of a private, prohibitive, conservative woman. I most enjoyed watching her at the times when she was left alone on stage, casually sitting on the couch brooding, deep in thought about her relationship with Ethan and what had transpired. It was in these very simple moments of no dialogue that her pensive personality really comes out and that we are able to very inconspicuously enter her head. One thing that did bother me with Barrie was her often patterned rhythm of speech. While she played the part very naturally, her voice intonations tended to follow a very predictable pattern which for me brought to question her fluidity as an actor.
Between the two actors, the chemistry is strong and perceptive, so much so that at times I felt as if I could reach out and touch it.
I also greatly enjoyed the relevant themes that Eason explores in Sex with Strangers. Olivia is someone many of us can connect to---one who deeply cares about the way others see her and thus less likely to step outside her comfort zone in fear that she won’t be accepted. She represents the human need for acceptance and assurance. Ethan, on the other hand, could care less about what others think of him. His sex blog is revolutionary and uncensored, and it is because he steps outside society’s boundaries and takes a plunge that he is able to find success. When these two characters come together, they each share a bit of their personalities with each other, bringing out new qualities in one another---an act that reflects the transformational potential of relationships.
Ethan pushes Olivia to take a risk, and as she opens herself up to Ethan’s new ideas and explores new ways to market her novel, the play is propelled forward. Her actions, initiated by Ethan, bring her success, which ultimately opens up Pandora’s box and adds intrigue to an otherwise more stagnant play. The romance between Ethan and Olivia becomes riddled with competition and the love that lives between Ethan and Olivia gets intertwined with their professional drives.
Another relevant theme the play touches upon is the role that social media plays in our current generation and the very new ways one must market him/herself in today’s very technological world. As Olivia sees it, if she does not embrace these new advances in technology, her career could be threatened. She faces the pivotal decision of whether to accept these new social media outlets (despite her reservations) or allow her personal preferences to win over (and prevent her career from moving forward). This quandary is one not unfamiliar in contemporary society.
I also found humor in this play, particularly in the handling of generational disparities. Online blogs, the iPad, and the Kindle confound 40 year old Olivia and make her dumbfounded, whereas for 24 year old Ethan, these gadgets are a cinch to navigate. The gap in comprehension of new technologies by different generations is incredibly relevant and funny, both on stage and in real life.
Overall, I found the simplicity of both the storyline and stage direction to be effective in bringing to focus the relationship between the two characters. There were few distractions so that audience members could hone in on this relationship and explore the various themes surrounding it. The writing and directorial execution was well complemented by the actors themselves, who exuded consistency and clear commitment to their roles.
"Sex with Strangers
" @ The Steppenwolf Theatre ( Upstairs Theatre )
1650 N. Halsted St., 312-335-1650
Thu. January 20, 2011 — Sun. May 15, 2011
Online ticketing available at www.steppenwolf.org
Photos by Michael Brosilow