Signature Theatre's staging of Sex With Strangers, by Laura Eason, is slick, provocative, and deliciously fun. Yet the production's success is due less to its look and feel than to the fact that its serious themes — ambition, envy, and the desire for intimacy and respect — never get lost in the comedy.
Set in a cabin at a Michigan writers' retreat temporarily isolated by a terrific snowstorm, the play finds Olivia (Holly Twyford), a promising but as yet unsuccessful 39-year-old writer, holed up proofreading her second novel. Suddenly, Ethan (Luigi Sottile) bursts into the cabin, looking for food and warmth – and Olivia. Ethan is 28, addicted to electronic devices, and very successful. He first found a huge audience in young people who liked to read his vividly smarmy blog about his sexual exploits. The blog was turned into a book series called Sex With Strangers, which became immensely popular. Although Olivia and Ethan are totally different types, it takes about six minutes to establish that there is an attraction between them. Ethan is arrogant, cocky, and aggressive, but he has the self-assurance of a man who has made himself successful, and that fact interests Olivia. For his part, Ethan wants to be a writer as talented as Olivia.
Director Aaron Posner demonstrates this mutual desire to have each other's gifts in his characters' words and in their movements. Posner makes Olivia slow to warm up to Ethan's bad manners, although from the start she recognizes Ethan's charm. It's not long before Posner turns up the heat, with Olivia and Ethan disrobing passionately and then disappearing into the bedroom. Throughout the play, Posner keeps a tight grip on the arc of Olivia and Ethan's relationship through their verbal exchanges and unbridled lovemaking.
Twyford's performance is brilliant. She makes the difficult role of Olivia totally comprehensible. On the one hand, Olivia is a writer who feels nostalgia for the late 1990s when her first novel received bad reviews. She mentally curses the digital revolution and its effect on books, whose feel and smell she loves. On the other hand, she makes her physical attraction to the digital-dependent Ethan as credible as her love for reading. Later in the play, when Ethan promises her fame by publishing her second novel as an e-book, after her initial repulsion, Twyford lets Olivia be talked into the idea as deftly as she lets herself be corrupted by Ethan's sexual attention.
Sottile excels in the complex role of Ethan. He smoothly plays all sides of his cagey character, from adoring fan to machismo lover. Ethan tells Olivia he loved her first novel. He convincingly woos her by quoting from it. He flatters her style and her ideas. Sottile is very funny as the childish Ethan, outraged when he realizes that there is temporarily no telephone, television, or Wi-Fi service in the cabin, and he is creepily vague about his life when he is away from Olivia.
J.D. Madsen's set reveals the comfortable cabin in Michigan, with a fire in the fireplace and books everywhere. At intermission, the set shifts to Olivia's city apartment, where she and Ethan meet when he's not traveling. Andrew Cissna's lighting design masterfully represents blowing and drifting snow outside and warm lighting effects inside. James Bigbee Garver communicates the ferocity of the storm with his sound design.
Sex With Strangers grows deeper and darker as it progresses. The play closes with a poignant sense of the gap between people of two eras, between those who treasure books and those who treasure electronic equipment.
More importantly, the play moves on from a clever romance to something more serious, bringing up three issues that encompass the heart of the production: the possibility of honesty, the importance of privacy, and the sanctity of personal identity. It is Olivia who must finally reckon with those issues in the end. Without a guarantee of all three, her books, and more importantly, she herself will not survive in the digital age.