'Sex With Strangers' is an intriguing, titillating play that teases our ideas of success, self-perception, and intimacy
The relatively new Rebel and Misfits Theatre Company plays with our ideas of theater in their An Intimate Theatre Project production Sex with Strangers. Set in an appropriately appointed private space in the Central West End, love and attraction are explored intellectually, physically, and in close proximity to the audience. In this space, the intimacy, manipulation, and intensity of the fractured relationship are clearly visible and the emotional arc reverberates with immediacy.
Olivia and Ethan are writers with varying degrees of success who meet when they are the only visitors to a retreat in northern Michigan, a private Air BnB that caters to a writer's need for isolation and working space. Olivia, whose first novel received mixed reviews and slow sales, is quietly revising the latest draft of her new novel when Ethan bangs loudly on the door, interrupting her solitude.
Ethan is brash, confident, and clearly not expected by Olivia. It's much later than his arrival time of six p.m. and, due to the snowstorm, she assumed he cancelled his plans. He's also about a decade younger. And has spent the last five years on the bestseller list by turning his blog "Sex with Strangers" into two sensational non-fiction works recently optioned for a movie. He's struggling with the script and has no intention of changing his plans, particularly now that he has met Olivia.
The play takes a deep dive into the vagaries of modern publishing, but is, primarily, the story of love pursued, won, betrayed, and lost. There's an epilogue scene, of sorts, that makes it clear their feelings linger even as situations change, though the audience is left wondering. As a love story the play is rather typically straightforward, if a little uncomfortable at times. It's the professional interests and style in which it plays out, and the motivations of the characters, that make the show so interesting and satisfying.
Kelly Hummert is thoughtful and cautious as the once burnt Olivia, but she's got ambition and fire that just needs the right trigger to burst forth. Christopher Tipp, as Ethan, provides that spark. He's energetic, with a mind that's always looking to the next step, and Tipp manages to capture that quality through movement and expressed impatience. The actors imbue their characters with contemporary realism and, as importantly, controlled and measured responses that suggest but don't immediately reveal driving motivations. This trait is most surprising in Olivia, and Hummert and Tipp have a natural chemistry that heightens the impact of her actions, effectively demanding Ethan's response.
Though the characters occasionally slide into personas rather than people, a problem with Linda Eason's otherwise interesting, well-crafted script, Hummert and Tipp remain committed to their characters. Personable and grounded in contemporary romantic comedy, their relationship holds our attention. The familiar foundation allows the actors to explore ideas like crafting a public persona for the pseudonym under which you write; the constant struggle to produce commercially viable work and its personal cost; what it means to be a writer of significance; and the important differences between content and literature.
Hummert's Olivia is believably serious about her craft and seriously literate, a trait Tipp's Ethan mocks, envies, and emulates. Tipp keeps us wondering about Ethan, his character knows much more about Olivia than she of him. Does he genuinely like and want to help Olivia, or is this all self-promotion? Was he planning to seduce her if she was there, before he arrived? Actually, that one is pretty much a given, but will he write about it? Tipp plays even this plot device off with an understated charm. But both characters have edges and flaws that prick at the audience, even as we want to sympathize and hope for the couple.
Under the smart direction of Michelle Bossy, who encourages the actors to strip down to the barest truth of their characters, the tension is as dramatic as sexual. The moral conundrum -- what would you do to get what you want -- is palpably realistic and continuously pressed. There's a raw urgency to Olivia and Ethan's sexual and intellectual attraction, and Hummert and Tipp tap into the well over and over again with increasing determination and hunger. The resulting show is at times uncomfortable, at times scintillating, and always genuinely captivating.
Rebel and Misfits Productions' Sex with Strangers runs through April 15, 2017 in a private venue in the Central West End. Seating is limited and the show is intended for mature audiences. The ideas of the title are explored in unexpected ways and there are genuinely tense and uncomfortable moments. Some audience members may be more strongly affected by these scenes, or by brief partial nudity. For me, the compelling show is thoughtful and provocatively authentic. If you enjoy nighttime cable television drama and are comfortable with the situations presented, you are likely to enjoy the immediacy and intensity of Sex With Strangers and the uninhibited, persuasive performances from Hummert and Tipp