Laura Eason's uneasy Sex with Strangers is leading off the 25th anniversary of the Montgomery Theatre in Souderton, through Feb. 25. It's a good account of a play that resonates in our moment and challenges audience values.
It's also one of the most popular contemporary plays in the United States, with more than 50 productions since it debuted in 2011. Eason was a writer for House of Cards, and that piercing, brittle irony permeates the proceedings. So do the one-liners.
"Who are you?" is the first one, the first line, the main question. Olivia (played with believable confusion and shock by Deborah Lynn Meier) is a thirtysomething writer, dashed by the flop of her first novel, working on her second at a writers' hideaway in Michigan. She is the Dreaded Decade younger than Ethan (long, tall, louche, degagé Rick Cekovsky), a publishing star thanks to his personal blog, Sex with Strangers, and the books it generated. Who, indeed, is this sex celeb who barges into Olivia's life, seduces her in the first half-hour (really, though? really?), and talks her into letting him republish her first novel digitally? And who is Olivia, acting like this?
Swinging, thick-skinned ("I'm an egomaniac: I don't care what people say as long as they say something"), Ethan moves powerfully through the world – but we, like Olivia, don't know him, and his Internet-savvy disregard for rules, plus his possibly savage misogyny, make him seem, as she says later, "dangerous." At first, Olivia draws sympathy: She has dreams, high standards. She is awed by his success: "What do you even worry about?" Ethan, digital edgelord, respects the old ways less. "There's a cost to all this," she objects. "Things are lost, things that were better." But it's success she really craves, and later, when success comes, standards, g'bye.
Olivia seems pretty sensible at first, but, wow, does she capitulate fast. And when you consider all she learns about Ethan – his sexcapades, the blogs his stranger-partners then write about him, his all-but-psychotic I-don't-care act, his claim he's fallen in love from afar, after reading her first book – you wonder whether any woman with functioning frontal lobes would touch him.
Director (and Montgomery Theatre cofounder) Tom Quinn gets good performances out of Cekovsky and Meier. But the long, treacly musical breaks between scenes dampened momentum. Often this play is done as a sizzler, but I did not feel it here. There's a lot of making out, but incongruousness pervades. "You're too young to know I'm too old," she tells him, and we feel the decade gap, a gap in understanding, compatibility.
But that's the issue. Who are you? If intimacy can't tell me, can I ever know? Ambition and fame obtrude: Is intimacy (or what we mistake for it) always equal to exploitation? In the world of Sex with Strangers, no matter how much sex you have with your object of desire, a stranger (s)he remains.