Ethan pleads that he has changed. “It’s a character I’m playing … I’m different now,” he tells Olivia in Laura Eason’s “Sex With Strangers,” currently playing at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick.
Don’t believe him for a second.
Ethan, played by Kyle Coffman, is a distinctly modern kind of literary star, who has made a fortune by chronicling his one-night stands in a misogynistic blog, then compiling his posts in a best-selling book titled “Sex With Strangers.” He swears that’s all in the past: He wants to become a serious novelist and literary entrepreneur. (Not right away, though: As soon as he finishes the screenplay for the big Hollywood movie based on his book).
Olivia (JoAnna Rhinehart), meanwhile, is a high-minded novelist who has zero interest in blogging, and isn’t even on Facebook. Yet a book she’s written has touched his heart, and so he seeks her out. Maybe he wants a physical relationship with her, or maybe a professional one. Maybe both.
They’re opposites in every way. He wears a Slash T-shirt. She reads Marguerite Duras. He’s a celebrity; she’s virtually unknown. He practically panics after he finds out that the remote Michigan bed-and-breakfast where he tracks her down has no Internet connection; she’s happy to stay unplugged and concentrate on her next novel.
She’s 39, and he’s 28 — it’s not the 11 years that really separates them, but the fact that he grew up with the Internet, and she didn’t. Culturally speaking, they’re practically … yes, strangers.
Even though he keeps on saying that the “Sex With Strangers” blogger is just a persona he adopted, it’s clear that there’s more to it than that. Because he keeps on acting like a jerk to her. And she just shrugs and takes it. And that’s the main problem with “Sex With Strangers”: It strains belief that the principled Olivia would let Ethan get away with so much. Even factoring in physical attraction, and the fact that Ethan may help Olivia get a book deal … it just doesn’t make sense.
Also not making much sense: The scene in which Olivia, who had never heard of “Sex With Strangers” before meeting Ethan, googles his name and the book title, and gasps at what she sees. Ethan is a writer, not a pornographer. She only has time to read a few words: What could she have possibly seen that would make her gasp like that?
I also didn’t like the design of her Chicago apartment: It’s believable that her walls would be lined with bookshelves, but did all of the books — hundreds, easily — have to be the exact same size?
I think Eason’s themes have a lot of potential. We live in an age in which outrageousness and oversharing can be a shortcut to fame and fortune for artists of all kinds. But how does that play out in the lives of the artists? And after doggedly selling yourself as an exotic phenomenon for years, can you pull back and just be a normal person? Or a normal artist?
But her lovers, Ethan and Olivia, don’t seem star-crossed. It’s more like they’re just mismatched. In a love story full of twists and turns, you should be thinking, “Why can’t they make this work?”, not “Why isn’t she running in the other direction?”
“Sex With Strangers” is at the George Street Playhouse through March 27; visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.