Sex With Strangers: not as much fun as it sounds

It’s not you, Loretta Walsh and Markian Tarasiuk. It’s the material.

Sex With Strangers is boring. (Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.)

In Laura Eason’s drama, 39-year-old Olivia is holed up in a writers’ retreat/B & B in Michigan when 28-year-old Ethan bursts out of the snow and through the door. Olivia is a novelist who makes her living teaching. She was wounded by critics’ tepid reception of her first novel, but she has nearly completed her second. Ethan, on the other hand, is an internet sensation. He wrote a series blog posts in which he recounted having sex with at least one new woman every week for a year. Then he turned those posts into a book that spent half a decade on The New York Times best-seller list. Now he’s working on the screenplay.

Ethan is freaked out when he discovers there’s no internet access at the retreat, but he’s an accomplished seducer—a fan of Olivia’s published novel, he quotes it to her—so he and Olivia are soon having sex. 

Unfortunately, none of this really matters. Playwright Eason sets out—very deliberately—to examine the shifting landscape of literary culture: Olivia loves the smell of books/Ethan’s a digital guy; Olivia reveres the established critics who dismissed her/Ethan insists that insightful responses can emerge online; Olivia longs for a publishing contract/Ethan loves the freedom of self-marketing. Okay. But these concerns aren’t inherently theatrical: if you want to talk about ‘em, write an essay—and find something new to say.

Still, there is one element that’s more theatrical: online, you can make yourself up. And Eason does a moderately good job of keeping the audience guessing about who Ethan really is. Did he create a skanky, misogynist persona for Sex With Strangers or is that him? Can Olivia trust Ethan when he begs her to do so?

Still, it’s hard to invest in their relationship because it never feels real. Though it can be witty, Olivia and Ethan’s dialogue is often hollow and the their supposed genius less than credible. When Ethan is praising Olivia’s début book for instance, he says of her protagonist, “Her inner life is, like, blindingly vivid” before moving on to more meaningless clichés about her book: “I think it’s remarkable. I do. And I am honoured to have read it.” Ethan and Olivia are defined entirely by their ambition, their relationship, and the machinations of the plot, so they never really acquire any depth.

To their great credit, actors Loretta Walsh (Olivia) and Markian Tarasiuk (Ethan) work this material for more than it’s worth. Tarasiuk captures the whole range in Ethan—from the swagger to the trembling insecurity. And Walsh is every bit as alert and responsive. Both actors deliver excellent naturalistic performances and both have the skill to tweak their timing slightly to take full advantage of the comedy.

John R. Taylor’s set is disappointingly clunky. Why are the door panels different colours than the rest of the walls? And, especially if you can’t afford to build a decent realistic box set, why not go for greater abstraction?

The scene changes, in which the actors change their clothes in dim light, suit the sexual focus of the material.

The next time I encounter them, I look forward to seeing both Walsh and Tarasiuk in plays that are more deserving of their talents.

SEX WITH STRANGERSBy Laura Eason. Directed by Aaron Craven. Produced by Mitch and Murray Productions.At Studio 16 on Friday, October 26.  Continues until November 10. Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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