Sex With Strangers: If only it were

An unremarkable love story for the digital age.

click to enlarge Carey Urban as Olivia and Ben Williamson as Ethan. - Kara Goldberg
Kara Goldberg
Carey Urban as Olivia and Ben Williamson as Ethan.

Don’t be misled by the title of Sex With Strangers. This play is about two characters only and nary a stranger shows up to distract or augment them during the rather tepid unfolding of their not very interesting relationship. Anyway, playwright Laura Eason is more interested in the proliferation of digital media than she is in sexual hijinks: she makes sure that her protagonists are often interrupted by cellphones when they’re not sounding off about blogging, apps, and ebooks. Unfortunately, all of this digitalk doesn’t add up to much of anything — we’d already gathered what world we live in, thank you — and a question of whether e-publishing or print publishing is more desirable is hardly the stuff of great dramatic suspense. Which is all a way of saying that Sex With Strangers is a disappointment. It has topics but no ideas, relevance but no importance. I’ve seen soap operas that were more fascinating.

The brightly designed American Stage production (living room sets by Steven K. Mitchell, costumes by Jill Castle) starts off promisingly enough. We’re at a haven for writers in the middle of a snowstorm. Ethan (Ben Williamson), whose blog Sex With Strangers has made him famous (or notorious), finds himself with Olivia (Carey Urban), whose first novel barely generated any interest, and who’s lost the taste for risking her reputation with a misunderstanding public. Ethan knows about Olivia: He’s read her published novel and thinks it magnificent, and he’s eager to discover her nearly finished new manuscript. And Ethan’s got momentum: His blogs were collected in a bestselling book which has been sold to the movies, and people are willing to pay him just to show up at their parties. He doesn’t have to work too hard to convince Olivia to have sex with him, so that question is answered very early in Act One. What remain are his efforts to turn Olivia into a success, in cyberspace if not in a bookstore. She’s uncertain at best: A few years older than her new lover, she still remembers the comforting feel of a three-dimensional volume you can put on a shelf. Will Ethan bring her the celebrity, electronic or otherwise, he claims she deserves? Will their instant sexual relationship turn into something lasting?

I wish I could say author Eason had the talent to make these questions feel urgent. But her dialogue is merely adequate, and she doesn’t seem to possess any notions about the new publishing climate aside from the fact that it exists. Digital subject or not, this is a familiar, predictable love story, and Eason has no insights into sex, love or ambition to make it even a little new. Urban’s acting as Olivia is impressive, however. She plays this self-critical writer with charm and a little melancholy, and she deftly enlists our support for her aspirations. (Of course, all we really know about Olivia’s writing is hearsay, so it’s never a sure thing that she deserves anyone’s acclaim.) Williamson as Ethan is another matter: On the one hand, he’s supposed to represent a new generation of scribes, soulless and shallow; on the other hand, being soulless and shallow, he can hardly succeed at gaining our respect. Which is another way of saying, we aren’t naturally led to want this coupling to flourish: Williamson’s crass, narrow Ethan doesn’t notably merit lovely, complex Olivia. Maybe if Williamson allowed us to see some self-doubt in his character, we might care more about the fate of his love affair. But he doesn’t, and that’s a problem — if we can’t root for the lovers, the play loses us early on.

A further complaint: the too-punctual disturbances of dialogue by cellphones is too obvious an attempt to make a comment about life in the newly wired landscape. This is a point that’s worth making, but it doesn’t need to be reiterated anywhere near so often. And no, I don’t find it riveting when Ethan buys Olivia an iPad. This Brave New World is yesterday’s news, along with blogging and anonymous e-reviews. Janis Stevens directs skillfully, but there’s so little real substance to this drama’s two suspense-less acts, no amount of force or fluency can make it satisfying. As I was watching, I couldn’t help but think of Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories, also about writers, but notably inventive in its dialogue. I wish that Sex With Strangers were even half as well-written.

The title’s magnetic. Sex With Strangers: gotta be terrific!

The play’s something else.