In Sex With Strangers The Attraction of Opposites Creates a Romantic Thriller

Ian James and Elaine Robinson in Stages Repertory Theatre's production of Sex With Strangers.
Ian James and Elaine Robinson in Stages Repertory Theatre's production of Sex With Strangers. Photo by Mitchell Greco
Olivia (played by Elaine Robinson) is a respected author who has written a book well-received by critics but that didn't sell. As the play opens she's in a cabin working on writing her next book amid the peace and quiet.

And then Ethan (Ian James making his Stages debut) shows up. The younger man has sought her out because of her work. His writing has been a commercial success, although at best his reviews have been mixed.

Sex With Strangers, about to be performed on the Stages Repertory Theatre stage, is variously described as a sly comedy and a romantic thriller about two people who wish they had what the other has. She wants sales; he wants to be respected. The relationship that ensues goes beyond the emotional and intellectual, into the physical.

Visiting director Seth Gordon (a past winner of the Houston Theater Best Director award) is back at Stages  to direct the two act, contemporary play by Laura Eason who he knows and has worked with in the past.

"I think she’s a very smart writer; she writes very real people.  In Sex With Strangers in particular she’s created a scenario where two people are very attracted to each other and at the same time their personal desires are diametrically opposed.

"Their work is the main attraction. What you learn is that he read her book and sought her out. To some degree he fell for her as a result of reading her writing."  Asked what she sees in him, Gordon says:  "That's what a lot of people will be contemplating as they watch the play.There's something very alluring about an electric personality. He’s also very generous to her. I don't just mean materially, He also is emotionally very generous to her. He is the first person to affirm her own belief in herself as a writer in many years."

Gordon first read the play when it was produced in an earlier form eight years ago at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. He saw the revised version in New York City about five years ago and that more recent version is the one that Stages is using.

Although there is never nudity in the play — the players take off their outer clothes, Gordon says — there are several intimate moments. Adam Noble who teaches at the University of Houston has been brought in as intimacy director, making sure that the actors feel safe while they are performing, Gordon says. 

"Intimacy direction is a rising field," Gordon says. "As more and more people are teaching it in school it's starting to manifest itself in the profession more and more, More and more film and television projects are featuring intimacy director or intimacy choreographers .. partly as a result of the #MeToo movement.

"His main role is not unlike that of a fight choreographer. If we were to do Hamlet, the big sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes toward the end of the play —the fight choreographer's role is to make simulated violence look very real but at same time be safe and comfortable for the actors involved. So an intimacy director is essentially doing the same thing. They're making physical intimacy look very real and at the same time be safe and comfortable for the people involved."

The first act takes play in the cabin; the second act moves them to her Chicago apartment. "This will certainly appeal to everyone who’s interested in the evolution of personal relationships and how things like self expression and social media which plays a very large role in the play and how these two writers are achieving success as writers in getting their stuff out there —how that affects personal relationships," Gordon says.

"The play deals a lot with how increasingly difficult it is to escape your past, redefine yourself. You take a picture the picture is posted and now it's forever. It wil never go away. Anyone interested in issues relatingvto privacy is going to be interested in this play. And also anyone interested in really great acting, this being two actors alone on stage for the entire play."

Gordon paused for a personal note. In the coming season Stages wil lbe moving from its present location to its new digs at The Gordy.

"This is my seventh play at Stages and my final one at its current location. So as I work in the theater I am gripped with dueling feelings of nostalgia for the stage and anticipation for a theater that doesn't have pillars."

Performances are scheduled for May 22 through June 9 at 7:30 p.n. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays abd 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit$25-$69.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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