Laura Eason’s 2011 two-hander, Sex with Strangers, can be seen from several different perspectives. It can be taken as a cautionary tale to millennials who seem obsessed with putting every detail of their lives on social media. It can also be a “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale. And then it can be seen as a nostalgic nod to the publishing world where physical books are being quickly replaced by e-books. No more pages of printed material to sniff and hold in your hand.
Ethan (Jake Ferree), a 24-year old blogger who had detailed and embellished his weekly sexual encounters with women, has stalked Olivia (Melissa Center), an older reclusive novelist, to a writer’s hideout in Michigan. Olivia’s first and only published novel didn’t receive the acclaim and sales she had hoped for and she has been shy about sharing her writing since then. Ethan has turned his blog entries into two hugely successful books and is now behind schedule writing the screenplay for the film version. He was recently turned onto Olivia’s writing through a mutual friend and tracked her down. He’s about to launch a new app and wants her next book to be one of its first offerings. Olivia is wary of Ethan’s youth and enthusiasm at first but he wears her down. Besides, there is no cell service at their remote location, the internet is down because of a severe snowstorm, there isn’t a deck of cards to be found so what else is there for two needy people to engage in but sex.
Besides the sex, which takes place offstage, these two use each other in other ways. Jake tempts Olivia with a successful writing career by introducing her to self-publishing online and also to his literary agent. But when Olivia finally checks out Ethan’s blog and discovers his treatment of women, she has misgivings but the lure of having another novel published, successfully this time, limits her objections. The two opposites attract and repel in about equal measure. Eason’s ambiguous ending is the perfect ending for this relationship. She tantalizes her audience but gives them the opportunity to write their own ending—a happy one or one that is more bittersweet.
Natalie Avital has kept the nearly two-hour play moving smoothly while keeping the audience’s interest, especially given the tight confines of the playing area and small cast. Ferree and Center both inhabit their roles with conviction, exhibiting a range of emotions. Sex with Strangers is worth discovering at the Hollywood Fringe Festival.