First impressions are everything — but should they be? My first impression of Laura Eason's Sex With Strangers, now making its New York premiere at Second Stage Theatre, was that it is a predictable and self-indulgent excuse to sound off about the digital revolution and its negative human implications. I was dead wrong. Under the deft direction of David Schwimmer, Sex With Strangers is a probing and painfully realistic look at first impressions, modern relationships, and the trust needed to bridge the gap between point A and point B.
Olivia (Anna Gunn) is a novelist turned college professor, watching over a friend's bed-and-breakfast in deepest, darkest Michigan. Her first book failed to find an audience when the cover art suggested Candace Bushnell and the pages delivered something much darker. Since then, she's been very protective of her work. When Ethan (Billy Magnussen) shows up on a snowy winter's night, her initial reaction is disgust. Ethan is a Tucker Max-style literary success story: That is to say, a jackass with a talent for prose. He gained a huge following by chronicling his sexploits on a blog. He then leveraged that into multiple book deals and a five-year stint on the New York Times bestseller list, all by the tender age of 28. He's staying at the B&B to finish up the screenplay for the film adaptation of his first book, Sex With Strangers.
After barging into the house, making a few off-color remarks, and checking his iPhone incessantly, he asks, "Am I seeming like a dick?" (Does he even need to ask?) But within the hour and after some wine-soaked exposition, his frat-boy veneer has given way to a soft poetic soul. He expresses his love for Olivia's obscure first novel and even quotes it back to her. She's smitten. (It doesn't hurt that these kind words are coming out of a handsome face.) They're all alone in the house, but should she really trust him? After all, he's made a career of charming girls and then writing about his conquests on the Internet.
You see where this is going, right? Well, you're wrong. The second act takes on a life of its own, far beyond the pretty-people-in-a-snowed-in-house soft-core-porn setup of the first. Eason develops both of her characters into fully formed human beings, equally capable of kindness and cruelty. Through exceptionally real-sounding dialogue, Eason explores professional jealousy, status issues, and the right to a past that doesn't define your future. Both actors excel in this back-and-forth and you never get the feeling that there is a clear "righteous party" in the mind of the author.
Schwimmer has garnered emotionally raw performances from both actors. Gunn is sophisticated, vulnerable, and skittish. Magnussen is bold, childlike, and utterly charming. Both accomplish, in just over two hours, the difficult task of creating an archetypal character and then smashing our preconceived notions of that character.
Well-considered design elements undergird these stellar performances by carefully establishing expectations. Andromache Chalfant has littered the set with clues about Anna's predilections: dusty first-edition books, vinyl records, and red wine. ESosa's costumes for Ethan tell the story of a millennial arrested by success: The hoodies, t-shirts, and fat-tongued sneakers make him appear like an overgrown toddler who's been hitting the gym hard. Japhy Weideman's fast-motion natural lighting during transitions seems to indicate the passage of time, but even this is misleading our perception of where the play is going.
You'll just have to see it and find out. Yes, it is very easy (and quite reasonable) to judge a book by its cover — in this case, two attractive actors staring lustily out from the program. It's even more rewarding, however, to find something surprising inside.