Ian James and Elaine Robinson in Stages Repertory Theatre’s production of Sex with Strangers.

It’s a snowy winter night in a Michigan B&B, and talented writer Olivia is just minding her own business when Ethan, a young, Tucker Max-esque blogger who’s turned his sexcapades into bestselling success, shows up. He says he has a reservation, but he really has no reservations about bedding woman after woman, and Olivia is intoxicated not only by the wine he keeps pouring, but his admiration of her writing. So goes the opening of Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers playing at Stages Repertory Theatre through June 9. It’s a heady combination, and the chemistry between Olivia and Ethan is palpable from the very first scene.

The set is wonderful—a fireplace, snow falling through a window, a cozy room with a table, couch, and stairs that lead to who knows what. Jodi Bobrovsky, Matt Crawford, Kimberly Powers, and Weston Wilkerson combine props, sound, scene, and lighting perfectly—from the bed and breakfast to Olivia’s book-laden Chicago apartment. The set was so appealing I was excited to see this play before anyone even walked onstage.

Olivia, who actually has literary talent, is played by the superlative Elaine Robinson. The actress perfectly captures Olivia’s attraction to Ethan as well as her reservations about him, and it was refreshing to see a female character who is simultaneously sexy and cerebral. Her character is worldly; Olivia has lived abroad, speaks other languages, teaches, reads, writes. She is also ambitious, and one can understand her wistfulness about Ethan’s staggering financial success. Of course, it seems unfair that she can’t seem to get attention for her literary efforts when his sex with strangers has sold like hotcakes. Ethan, played by the wonderful newcomer Ian James, tells Olivia that she’s “really rule-oriented” and hilariously confronts her about “all that rage you are badly suppressing” in witty and revealing dialogue that amps up their existing chemistry. 

Eason does a wonderful job of satirizing the addiction of Ethan to the internet, as well as how Olivia and Ethan are from slightly different dating generations. When the blizzard makes the wireless connection go down, the younger Ethan seems genuinely pained, exclaiming “People will think I am dead!” But he feels alive around Olivia, and one gets the impression that his in-person connection with her might be the most authentic thing he has ever experienced. But the digital world also has its drawbacks, including the fact that Olivia can look him up and read all about his shallow sexual past. His expertise with “apps” proves a dangerous power that has profound consequences for their future relationship.

Ian James and Elaine Robinson in Stages Repertory Theatre’s production of Sex with Strangers.

Let me say that these are exceptional actors, and I know I have used the word “chemistry” about three times already, but there is no other word for their electric connection on the stage. The direction of Seth Gordon and the Intimacy Director Adam Noble is almost a little too good. I sometimes felt like a voyeur surreptitiously spying on my new BFFs Olivia and Ethan, and I was rooting for them despite the Tucker Max factor. Each transition between scenes suggests a sexual encounter, but also the possibility that they are falling in love.

Even though Ethan did chronicle having sex with a different woman every week for a year, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate good writing, and they both talk about Junot Diaz and Jonathan Lethem. Diaz dramatizes the pressures on men to prove themselves through sexual conquest; Lethem proffers the notion of “insteadness,” or how we substitute banal activities or shallow relationships to avoid real intimacy and authenticity. Trust me, Eason knows what she is doing here, and the result is perfectly delightful: smart, comic, sad, witty. With their excellent rapport, these two actors make it look believable.

Eason further addresses the anxieties of the literary world: the fear of being on “the chick-lit bandwagon,” the power of critics, the truth that “being popular is not the same as being good.” Juxtaposed by the tricky business of literary success is the parallel universe of personal success, and the deal-breaking choices that can sever even the strongest of attractions. The play opens with Olivia asking Ethan, “Who are you?” and that question is one of the most important ones in this multi-layered play. When Ethan claims he is “serious,” it is hard for Olivia to take him seriously, because he has made his career on a certain level of dishonesty with every woman he has ever met. He claims, “It’s in the past. I’m different now.” But their attraction is so palpable, we, like Olivia, want to believe him. Olivia says, “I don’t know what to do with all of this information,” a revealing comment on the internet age, and how it may not help us really know each other all that much.

Olivia and Ethan engage in a dance the entire production—one involving sex, romance, and professional compromises, even when they are intended to help Olivia’s fiction get on the literary map. There is a “cost to all this,” and Ethan’s best-selling book Sex with Strangers becomes more than a title—but a comment on our times. 

From the set to the actors, I loved this production, and it's one of the best things I have seen this year.

Thru June 9. Tickets from $25. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy. 713-527-0123. More info and tickets at stagestheatre.com.

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