Laura Eason's exploration of egos, insecurities, and drowning in digital communication features a fiery performance by Stephen Louis Grush as a mysterious stranger who struggles to separate from a bad-boy persona in the Geffen Playhouse production of Sex With Strangers.
In an isolated bed and breakfast, Olivia (Rebecca Pidgeon), a failed author, finds herself refreshed and artistically revitalized by Ethan, a cocky writer of misogynistic bestsellers (Grush). Ethan, a longtime fan of Olivia's first novel, seduces her sexually and then through the powers of building literary celebrity for herself. Olivia's passion for Ethan wanes when she finally reads Sex With Strangers, Ethan's hit chronical about his sleeping with more than one woman a week. The Internet churns story after story about his exploits and some are quite cruel and demeaning to women. Olivia wants to love Ethan, but the more she discovers, the less he appeals to her.
Eason's concepts are quite promising. The play begins in a world cut off from the global village. The bed and breakfast has lost its Wi-Fi connection and the hotel's occupants rely on the more primitive forms of entertainment, sex and reading, to bide their time. Once the outside world returns, and Ethan's past comes crashing back, their relationship implodes. Unfortunately, Eason does not fill in enough details to make us understand or empathize with either Olivia or Ethan. Eason does not reveal Ethan's true motives for his manipulative behavior, and makes it frustratingly unclear about the type of novels Olivia writes to the point where the audience is left to wonder if Olivia is meant to be taken seriously as an accomplished author or id she's written something that captures the zeitgeist?
Pidgeon's stilted performance exasperates many of the play's problems. Her affected accent, exaggerated enunciation, and cool demeanor read as flat. At no point does Pidgeon seem to believe her dialogue; she merely recites what is on the page as if she is at a table reading. In contrast, Grush is irresistible as the smarmy, smug, and volatile Ethan.
Director Kimberly Senior appears to have given both actors little stage motivation, so that they merely pace about aimlessly. Set designer Sibyl Wickersheimer makes good use of the stage. The ceiling molding sprawls across the theater, creating a tangible space. However, Act 1 and Act 2 take place in different locations (the bed and breakfast and Olivia's living room) and the set is not dressed uniquely enough to make that transition clear.
The war of the sexes has been explored since the ancient Greeks, before Lysistrata and her friends withheld sex as a statement for peace. Today, there is a fascinating truth to be explored about modern love constantly distracted by texts and emails, where every secret has already been posted on a Facebook wall for an unsuspecting lover to uncover. Sex With Strangers attempts to reveal how the Internet has ruined romance, but fails to bring the elements together into a poignant format. By the final bow, the characters are as much strangers to each other and the audience as they were when the lights first dimmed.