Sex With Strangers Sizzles and (Thought) Provokes at Stages

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 Amitava Sarkar
If playwright Laura Eason’s clickbait title did its job and got you here, then good. Sex With Strangers, now playing at Stages Repertory Theatre, deserves a look and much more.

Sex With Strangers opens in a snowy Michigan B&B, where soon-to-be 40-year-old author Olivia is squirreled away proofing her new novel. The quiet atmosphere is quickly broken with the arrival of Ethan Kane, the man behind the popular (and titular) book series Sex With Strangers, which originated from a blog where he documented his experience having sex with a different woman every week for a year.

Though a decade younger and a boatload more successful, Ethan is Olivia’s biggest fan. In between making himself right at home, chowing down on cereal and taking over every inch of space he can, it’s revealed that despite all his success — he’s at the lodge (ostensibly) to work on a screenplay to bring Sex With Strangers to the big screen — what Ethan really wants is critical success, and to be taken seriously.

Olivia, it turns out, is working on a novel she may never let anyone read after the mixed reviews of her first book have scared her away from putting herself out there again. Though it’s clear they both want something the other has, it soon becomes obvious that they both want each other as well.

Eason’s script is as witty and humorous as it is perceptive and insightful. Though her script fully invests in her characters, it’s painfully clear these people stand for two sides of a digital divide, where less than a decade between two people seems like a chasm impossible to cross.

The generationally and technologically caused differences between Olivia and Ethan manifest throughout the play. Ethan doesn’t blink at the idea of one sentence encapsulating who you are, and with all the noise from a lifetime of social media, Ethan sees criticism as a “take the good, leave the bad” endeavor, where Olivia sees it as all or nothing. Olivia is tethered to the old model of publishing and the credibility it lends, not the new model that includes e-books, hits, retweets and subscribers.

And then there’s the question Olivia voices, the question plaguing a generation: “Isn’t there anything you want to keep private?” Maybe the most interesting exploration of the play is the reconciliation that has to take place between a person’s curated image and well-documented past with the human being that stands before you. Though Eason seems to come down on a side, she is far from dismissive of the other.

Maybe the most difficult aspect of this play to swallow is just how quickly these two end up in bed (or on desk, or floor, or wherever) together. But the actors, under the careful direction of Seth Gordon, make it believable, their relationship evolving in a surprisingly realistic way. Part of this can definitely be attributed to the naturalistic leaning of Eason’s dialogue, but in this production a lot of credit has to go to Elaine Robinson and Ian James. Their chemistry is off the charts and the connectedness is impressive. They orbit each other like they really are the only two people in the world, and the shifts in tension are subtle but decidedly charged. You can thank Adam Noble, whose work as intimacy director surely helped in creating an environment where both Robinson and James could play every note of their characters to perfection, which — spoiler alert — they do.

Ethan is a self-described asshole and egomaniac, and James establishes that cocky, “sorry, not sorry” attitude from the get. Though Ethan’s charm level is turned up to a suspicious (and potentially smarmy) 11, James never comes off as anything but sincere. Obnoxious, full of himself, shameless — sure. But never insincere. James carries the chip on Ethan’s shoulder well, his passion to prove something palpable. He’s also quite adept at comedy, getting some of the biggest laughs of the night, like during his perplexed panic at the lack of internet access.

Robinson walks a line between composed and uptight, and as self-possessed as the character is, she keeps Olivia's vulnerability right below the surface, preventing her from crossing over into shrew territory. Yes, she is guarded, defensive, and judgmental, yet it’s hard to lose sight of her intense (and very human) longing for outside validation, which in turn makes it very believable when she is so swept away by Ethan’s fandom. Robinson’s best work is on display when Olivia’s disbelief and fearfulness (at one point seemingly teetering on the edge of a panic attack) starts to turn to hope. It’s contagious.

click to enlarge Ian James and Elaine Robinson in Stages Repertory Theatre’s production of Sex with Strangers. - PHOTO BY AMITAVA SARKAR
Ian James and Elaine Robinson in Stages Repertory Theatre’s production of Sex with Strangers.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar
And it’s here that Kristina Hanssen’s costume designs deserve a mention. Olivia is a woman who, in many ways, has given up, too fearful to try again. She’s also a lady whose ponytail is (figuratively) a little too tight at the outset of the play. But as she slowly lets her guard down, and later comes into herself more fully, the costume design shows it. Hanssen moves Robinson from gray robe, plaid pajama pants and slippers to an oversized button-up only, the aforementioned ponytail coming down to reveal long hair that hangs past her shoulders. From here, things become more fitted but sensible, and finally bold and colorful.

Scenic Designer Kimberly Powers and Properties Designer Jodi Bobrovsky are responsible for the play’s two sets, one the coziest B&B in all of Michigan and the second Olivia’s sensible apartment. The rustic lodge setting of the first act is the stuff of romance novels, both in terms of locale and where you’d want to curl up to read one. From the ceiling hangs a chandelier, a stone fireplace serves as the eye-catching centerpiece, and more than enough throw pillows and candles are carefully, and intentionally, sprinkled throughout. Though a pop of white in the form of a fluffy shag rug lays in front of the fireplace, burgundy and gold dominate the color palette, and under Weston Wilkerson’s lighting designs, the place glows with warmth — an important contrast to the snowy, true blue night visible through the windows.

When the play shifts to Olivia’s apartment in the second act, the rows and rows of books lining the back wall (as well as a small stack of four at the foot of an armchair), the Paul Berthon L'ermitage print on the wall, and the old typewriter on display give hints of Olivia’s personality to an otherwise paint-by-numbers residence. Though really, that’s exactly the kind of place Olivia would live in.

Both the lighting designs by Wilkerson and Matt Crawford’s sound designs lend the production a bit of a cinematic feel. The play begins with a spotlight on Olivia and a “fade in” of sorts, as the lights slowly come up, candles flickering on one at a time, until the set’s fully lit. Not for nothing, the production returns to spotlights, fade ins and fade outs throughout with great effect, too. The music that cues the intro and also closes different scenes evokes a similar feeling, but leans a bit more to “commercial break” than scene change.

Sex With Strangers is a thought-provoker, guaranteed to send you out of the theater not only praising the production, but asking some big questions including one of the biggest in this day and age: “Can you defend everything you did at 19?”

Performances continue through June 9 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For more information, call 713-527-0123 or visit $25 to $69.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.