Review: 'Sex with Strangers' at the Westport Country Playhouse

Tara Kennedy

  • OnStage Chief Connecticut Critic / CT Critics Circle

“I feel like it’s such an interesting time now… We used to be able to choose what we would disclose and when we would disclose it and how we would disclose it…It’s just incredibly interesting how we’re moving through the world and what that means about how we come to know each other.”

Laura Eason, talking with Steppenwolf Artistic Director, Martha Lavey about Sex with Strangers

Laura Eason knows all about provocative writing; she’s a staff writer for the acclaimed Netflix series, House of Cards, which twists and turns as it highlights the deep-seeded underbelly of Washington politics. But what can transpire over a number of seasons is very different than what is possible in a two-hour play.

The show opens on a cabin in the woods of Michigan during a blizzard. Olivia (Jessica Love), an almost-forty professor/writer is looking for an isolated, quiet place to write, and thinks she’s found it. All contacts to the outside world are off, except for a lone landline. In bursts Ethan (Chris Ghaffari), a twenty-something who has shown up late for his room reservation in the cabin due to the snowstorm. Immediately you can see that these two people are very different: Olivia is meticulous and orderly; Ethan is slack and disheveled and, by his own admission, an asshole. He reveals that he writes a sex-blog-turned-New-York-Times-best-seller; a sex blog that documents his female conquests in bars ever since he was 19 (think “Girls Gone Wild” sort of stuff). So, it comes as a surprise to Olivia that she and Ethan have a friend and colleague in common – a Pulitzer-prize winner at that – who introduces Ethan to Olivia’s first and only novel, which did not sell well years ago due to a poor cover choice by the publisher.  Turns out, Ethan is enamored with her novel and seems to know a bit about her. What starts as a seemingly chance encounter turns into an affair where Ethan offers a lot to Olivia to revive her career. But as the real (and online) worlds are restored, trust and truth’s lines become blurred as does the public and private lives of these two people.  And when Ethan expects a reimbursement from Olivia for his help with her book, she isn’t willing to sacrifice a fabulous opportunity to repay him.

While I didn’t dislike this play, I didn’t love it either; it’s not something I’m going to tell you to run and out and see. I think a lot of this play’s issues for me stem from some fundamental problems in its composition and casting. My biggest challenge was the lack of chemistry between the performers; the moments of seduction and passion should’ve demonstrated those very emotions, but the actors instead seemed forced and stiff.  It may derive from the fact that the script didn’t give the two actors much to go on in order to develop that attraction.  It may also come from the fact that Ms. Love appears a much more seasoned actor than Mr. Ghaffari and the two were not equals in terms of ability. Whatever the issue, I had a hard time accepting Olivia’s near-instant attraction to Ethan. Here’s the thing: I’m a reasonably smart, 40-something woman, and after an obnoxious introduction like Ethan pulled in the opening scene, it would take a lot for this dude to recover and charm me into bed. And if Ethan didn’t convince me, how did he convince Olivia? Really, the only thing keeping me in my seat was to see what Ethan’s angle was for going to the Michigan cabin in the first place, and weirdly, I’m still not sure what it was.

So, what is the message that the play leaves us with? Is it a cautionary tale of the generational gap? Is it an exploration of how public and private realms are so different now? If it is either of these themes, fair enough, but the examination of these spheres through a less-than-believable affair makes this work fall a little short for me.  However, I do want to give a shout out to Edward T. Morris for first-rate, clever scenic design, where a turntable reveal during intermission from a cabin in the woods to a modern loft apartment was met with applause.

Photo: Peter Chenot