Sex with Strangers Theatre Review – Two Strangers, No Chemistry

Olivia (Carey Urban) and Ethan (Ben Williamson)

(St. Petersburg, FL) April 15, 2017 – The ever-(d)evolving digital age can be a blessing and a curse to humanity. It can serve as a treasure trove of knowledge for anyone to access, from collecting background material for an academic thesis, to looking up some movie trivia. It can bring people together who have been apart for decades, such as finding your best friend from elementary school on Facebook. But has the digital age helped or hindered true communication? Does it help humanity connect with each other, or does it keep us emotionally apart? Does it reveal too much, or perhaps does it bend the truth about a person? Texting, one of the most common forms of communication in society today, has become a pacifier, a verbal “quickie” that is sadly preferable than a person-to-person phone call. Skype, a useful tool for giving seminars or just having a fun chat with a relative across the nation, is becoming more desirable for job interviews than meeting face-to-face, thereby removing the human element from the workplace. And eBooks, although an efficient marketing tool, is a poor, cold substitute to the steady heft of a good solid book, feeling the age of the story and the spirit of its literary creator.

Getting to know each other

These are the issues that playwright and “House of Cards” screenwriter Laura Eason explores in her 2011 play, “Sex with Strangers,” which makes its Tampa Bay area premiere at the American Stage. It is not surprising that this love story, which explores how technology can make and break a relationship, was listed as one of the Top 10 Most-Produced Plays throughout the country for the past two seasons. “Strangers” is extremely funny and insightful, courtesy of Eason’s thought-provoking characters and razor-sharp dialogue. Unfortunately, at the St. Petersburg production, a severely poor performance by one of the stars has ruined the opportunity to witness a realistic interaction between two sympathetic, complex characters. And because of this acting choice, the relationship that unfolds on the stage lacks the realism that is on the page. Due to the lack of chemistry between the stars, the play’s potential greatness is severely damaged.     

Hoping for a best seller

Olivia (Carey Urban) is a forty-ish novelist who faded into obscurity when her first literary endeavor failed to meet marketing expectations. Although she’s content as a teacher at a local college, she desires to write a novel that can achieve both critical and financial success. She eschews the digital media to the point where she performs the sacrilegious act of deleting her Facebook account (Heaven forbid!), and she takes a winter creative sabbatical at a Michigan bed and breakfast. After a few moments of peaceful creativity, she is disturbed by a new tenant: Ethan (Ben Williamson), a twenty-something blogger who has made a career of posting his sexual exploits on his website, which were compiled into his two best-selling books, “Sex with Strangers” and “More Sex with Strangers.” He’s young and ambitious, but shows much regret that he’ll never be acknowledged as a serious writer, especially with a new literary project he is working on. He reveals that he tracked Olivia down after reading her first novel, stirring emotions he has never felt before. Reading her book not only inspires his own creativity as a writer, but also to be a person of substance, not a shallow cad who lives just for the moment. The chemistry between the characters, at least in the script, begins to brew and eventually erupts. In their brief love affair, they learn more about each other…perhaps too much when Olivia reads Ethan’s book, leading to complications that might have disastrous consequences.    

Early celebration

Playwright Eason perfectly captures the generational gap between her two characters with regard to their writing careers. Olivia is the traditionalist who focuses on literary integrity and the importance of printed books. Ethan values eBooks, being on the best-seller list, and making lots of money. Each desires what the other wants: she dreams to be a full time writer and he wants to be a serious author. And yet, it is digital media that tears their relationship into pieces. Director Janis Stevens handles the play’s context wonderfully by maintaining the story at a steady pace, although it would have helped to somehow incorporate how much time goes by after every scene, especially at the end of the play where 1 ½ years go by, and yet, the script doesn’t indicate that. Scenic Designer Steven K. Mitchell shows impressive ingenuity by having a B&B transform into Olivia’s apartment with incredible ease during the intermission.

Loss of trust

Although the chemistry of the characters is very much evident in the script, it wasn’t the case between the two artists, and this is mainly due to the acting choice of Williamson. The moment he enters the stage, his energy level is already near the top. He is not manic, but he appears to be on one solid emotional level throughout the show. He can’t go any higher, so there is nowhere else for him to go emotionally. There are times when he needs to be subdued, especially when expressing his doubt about his talents. But he performs those scenes at the same high emotional level, as though he were reciting his lines rather than transforming into a three-dimensional character. There are some witty lines where he nails them perfectly with that high energy mode. However, when there are other lines of humorous dialog that require more subtlety, he just speaks at the same high tone and volume, and the humor falls extremely flat.  His portrayal is literally a one-note performance.

 

Urban fares slightly better as Olivia. She does a decent job combining her character’s vulnerability with a biting sense of dry humor. She also slowly reveals her passion for books; when she picks up an old book and deeply inhales the aged pages and binding, her love for literature exudes a type of potency only a bibliophile can understand. But her full emotional range significantly diminishes whenever Williamson displays his high, youthful callowness at the wrong times. Besides the lack of emotional chemistry, their physical chemistry—which is important for this play—seems forced and awkward. If Williamson had varied his emotional range, the performances would be uniformly consistent. But as of Saturday night, the show’s only major flaw hurts the entire production.

 

But this doesn’t hurt American Stage’s overall 2016-2017 season. Its diverse selection was extremely impressive, and next season promises to be even better, whose dramatic selections include Shakespeare (“Much Ado About Nothing,” featuring Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte in her American Stage acting debut), Lorraine Hansbury’sA Raisin in the Sun,” and five new plays. It is no doubt that American Stage will continue to maintain its status as a theatrical gem in West Florida.    

 

Peter A. Balaskas is a fiction writer, copyeditor, and playwright.

Sex with Strangers runs from July 12 – August 6, 2017

American Stage

163 3rd St N.

St. Petersburg, FL 33701

Photos by Joey Clay Photography

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