“Sex with Strangers,” the latest offering from independent theater company The Liminal Playhouse, offers a look at intimacy and honesty in an age where the written word as a form of communication is more prevalent than it ever has been before. Blogs have joined books, Facebook posts have joined poetry, online personas can define people for years after they have attempted to move on.
The show also unpacks consent in a way that feels dangerous and strange. It is one of the first plays I have seen about the internet age that already feels like a picture of another time. Not dated per se, but a window into another world. Seven years ago when the play was first performed at The Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, the ideas and conversations about sex, rape culture, and affirmative consent were drastically different. The action feels true and fresh, but the juxtaposition of then and now gives the audience food for thought that they likely were not expecting.
The play follows Olivia and Ethan, two people who meet in a remote bed and breakfast, in the middle of a snow storm. No one else is around, but the two have both gone into relative seclusion hoping to get away from their lives and get a little writing done. Olivia (Lauren Argo) is working on a novel, Ethan (Winston Blake) is finishing his screenplay.
Ethan is essentially a blogger pick-up artist who got a book deal, then a movie deal, whereas Olivia is a forgotten literary would-be genius.
The action picks up quickly as the two verbally spar, and it doesn’t take long for sparks to fly, physically and intellectually.
Argo and Blake are a strong onstage team, effective whether they are flirting, fighting, or fornicating. Blake is spot on with his mixture of “bro” arrogance and a sexy, yet slightly sleazy sincerity. Argo brings a wounded hunger to her role that allows Olivia to undergo a particularly complex emotional journey as she navigates her feelings for Ethan, and possible changes in her life.
Despite the romance and the comedy, the play never feels like a romantic comedy. The back and forth, the “will they or won’t they,” comes from a place of real conflict.
Like most excellent two person shows, the action in “Sex with Strangers” lives in the shifting balance of control, as the two characters pursue and discover their desires. The intersection of several power dynamics gives the actors a lot of room to play. A mixture of sexual tension, artistic longing for relevance, and the more real world longing for financial security makes up the bulk of the drama for Argo and Blake, who transition smoothly from one dynamic to the next.
Director Tony Prince has helped the actors create idiosyncratic performances that gives Olivia and Ethan a down to earth humor, a nice contrast to the full on zaniness into which too many comedies lurch.
Behind the fun and funny power gymnastics, there is often a looming threat in the aggressive edges of Ethan’s personality. The audience is all too aware that for much of the play, Ethan and Olivia are alone, in cabin, where there isn’t even Wi-Fi, let alone cell service or someone to hear cries for help.
It is hard at times to tell for sure if these moments come solely from the script, or if director Tony Prince has explored them to further heighten the dichotomy between the discourse of 2001 and 2018. Regardless, it is a credit either to his judgment in script selection, or his skill working with the text and the actors.
There is so much going on, that one could almost over look that this is yet another play about creative people creating things. It is writing about writing, and part of a synchronicity that has hit Louisville this week. Currently showing locally: a play at Actors Theatre about a playwright and a musical at Acting Against Cancer about a composer and a librettist, in addition to this Liminal drama about two novelists. That doesn’t even count two or three other recently-closed plays examining artists.
Each of those productions, and their scripts, have their own value, and Louisville has a great opportunity to compare how three very different plays approach a similar subject, and how they use portraits of artists to portray universal emotions.
“Strangers” dives into the relative value of art, but it also uses the protagonists and their prose to deepen and illuminate the action. Olivia and Ethan’s work explores intimacy of a very different type than the titular sex. It also explores another angle of consent, and examines who has the right to read what when, and who owns writing once it is finished.
Among the deep exploration, and long looks at difficult issues, the play never stops being funny for long.
The excellent set by Bob Bush is lovely enough for me to notice it at the beginning of the play, but constructed well enough that I quickly forgot it was a set. The technical team also pulls off some excellent practical lighting effects, and the best falling snow I’ve seen from a theater company of this size.
Throughout Liminal’s three seasons, Prince has often chosen plays with a lot of bombast up front, where the conflict is quickly turned up to 11.
In “Strangers” he takes his time, letting Argo and Blake build to the bigger moments. Like much of the sex mentioned in the play’s title, the audience is all the more satisfied having waited for those climaxes.
Eli Keel is a Louisville-based freelance writer and playwright.
“Sex with Strangers” by Laura Eason
The Liminal Playhouse
March 29-April 8