Sex with Strangers

“Who are you?” This is what Olivia (Anna Gunn) asks at the beginning and end of Laura Eason’s play, Sex with Strangers. The question is directed at a different person each time it is asked, and while it is both the first and last line of the play, it hangs over Olivia and Ethan (Billy Magnussen) throughout. 

The two-hander begins with Olivia sitting in a secluded bed and breakfast (of which she’s a guest) in the Michigan woods. Ethan, another (unexpected) guest, barges in, ostensibly looking for a quiet place to write. (The space is known as a writer’s haven.) The two begin talking, exchanging some bits of information but not others, trying to figure out the answer to Olivia’s question. The second act sees them in Olivia’s cramped Chicago apartment, and while the circumstances have changed (they evolved over the few days seen in the first act), the quest to understand who they are, as individuals and to each other, remains.  

I’ll diverge for a moment to remind you of the great playwright Anton Chekov, who said that if a gun is shown in the first act, it better go off in the next one. So, yes, there is sex in this provocatively-titled play. The sex scenes (all in the first act) are slightly longer than they need to be, but they drive home how Olivia and Ethan are connecting physically and how that contrasts, helps and/or hinders their emotional connection, which keeps Olivia’s question front and center, and is really the crux of the play.

How much are we willing to let people in? You can have sex with a stranger, but you won’t tell someone an intimate detail of your life, or share your work with thousands of strangers for fear of the reaction. But how much do we know about the people we sleep with, anyway? And how much do we know about ourselves when we live untested lives?

Eason’s writing is crisp and smart, funny and true. (In addition to her theatre work, Eason is a story editor for House of Cards.) The timing is off here and there (direction is by David Schwimmer (Friends, Detroit)) but otherwise good, and the staging keeps this from idling away. It also makes effective use of the spaces created by scenic designer Andromache Chalfant. The B+B set makes clear that it is a spacious home yet the main playing space confines Olivia and Ethan to a small area, forcing conversation. Similarly, in act two the playing space is cut smaller than it needs to be for the stage. They are in this cramped space and must address what’s happening—they have nowhere to hide.

No matter how good the writing, direction or other technical elements are, it can sometimes be tedious to watch two people talking for two hours. Luckily, we have a great cast. Anna Gunn (an Emmy winner for Breaking Bad) is wonderfully natural, almost disarmingly so. Her scene partner, Billy Magnussen (a Tony nominee for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) has great charisma, balancing brashness and bravado with sincerity and soul.

Sex with Strangers doesn’t exactly reveal anything new about relationships or creativity (both Olivia and Ethan are writers, and their professional highs and lows are integral to the plot), though certain technological advances (some that came about over the five years the play has been gestating) do give this a fresh feel. Even so, it’s well written and highly entertaining, and it’s not just the provocative title that will leave you wondering, “Who are you?”

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