The premise of the movie A Star is Born, reconfigured for the online generation, is the main thrust of Sex with Strangers, a provocative and sexually-charged drama, playing at Theaterworks in Hartford through April 17th.
The action begins at a bed and breakfast on a snowy March night in the Michigan outback. Olivia (Courtney Rackley), a middle-age writer working on her second novel, is the sole occupant of the abode until a latecomer, Ethan (Patrick Ball), barrels onto the scene. He is a wired Millennial, 28 years old, narcissistic, and brimming with confidence. We quickly learn he is a blogger turned bestselling author. His work, “Sex with Strangers,” celebrates and chronicles his sexual scores with women he has met in bars. At first repulsed, Olivia slowly falls for his swaggering charm and soon becomes another of his conquests. Throughout the weekend the two continually engage in carnal pleasures. We also discover that Ethan has grander literary aspirations beyond his trashy tomes and Olivia’s first book, a commercial flop, is a favorite of the young man’s. He convinces her to republish it online under a pseudonym and to let him use his celebrity status to promote it. Within the next few weeks Olivia’s star in the publishing world continues to rise while Ethan’s career, through a series of missteps and events, begins to stagnate. Very soon the influence and power dynamics between the two protagonists, like in A Star is Born, change dramatically, altering each person’s trajectory and life.
Playwright Laura Eason’s drama is a stimulating, multi-layered drama that gives audience members much to think about during the course of the show. The production addresses a number of timely topics in addition to the overall arc of the show. One of the more prevalent issues she successfully weaves into the show is the nature of one’s online persona. How much is fact or fiction? In the social media age can an individual’s image be suitably governed or is the Internet just an unmanageable Wild West? Eason also meditates on commercialism and the nature of relationships where a simple Google search can produce a wealth of data to digest.
I found Patrick Ball believable as the self-centered, ever calculating Ethan. The character’s motivations can be questionable and not always pure, but the actor delivers with a gusto and sometimes whininess. He perfectly captures the culture of those twenty-somethings brought up in the digital age where boundaries of privacy and decency are tenuous at best. Courtney Rackley is less persuasive, at first, as Olivia. This might have more to do with the ambivalence her character displays towards the totally self-assured Ethan. Act II is a different story. As she grows as an author, receives positive feedback and renumeration her insecurities and lack of self-confidence slowly melt away. Rackley seems more suited to this part of role’s development as she exudes poise and conviction. Or does she?
Director Rob Ruggiero brings the two actors together, literally, rather quickly. After each hook-up he gives each performer space to pontificate about the assorted issues writer Laura Eason injects into the drama. The action and tete-et-tetes in Act I is sufficient, but Ruggiero keeps it much livelier, crisper and bracing in Act II.
Brian Prather’s set design convincingly goes from cozy Bed and Breakfast interior to a stylized Chicago apartment’s living room.
Sex with Strangers, a very relevant and of-the-moment play for mature audiences only.