Friday, 10 February 2017

Sex With Strangers

Despite attractive leads and a provocative title, Laura Eason’s Sex With Strangers fails to thrill

Written by Ian Shuttleworth

Right, pop quiz: what publishing house is known as FSG? And what’s so great about being retweeted by Jonathan Lethem? To which you ask me back, what has that got to do with theatre? Well, if you don’t already know that Farrar, Straus and Giroux is a prestigious US publishing company and that genre- bending Mr L is a big-calibre author in the same field, playwright Laura Eason isn’t interested in explaining it to you. ian

It isn’t that Sex With Strangers is incomprehensible if its world isn’t also yours; but if it isn’t, then the play doesn’t really care. Pretty much the entire hour-long first half consists of its two characters talking literature with each other – occasionally the internet – and pretty much every time the lights fade between scenes, they get down to carnal happy fun times, but for the most part the conversation makes Woody Allen’s cultured Manhattanites sound like The Royle Family.

Olivia tried and failed as a novelist several years ago; she still writes, but is terrified about showing her work to anyone. On a writing retreat in a snowbound cottage in Michigan, she’s surprised by Ethan, who’s a net sensation for his laddish blog, an exaggerated biography of his horizontal activities entitled Sex With Strangers. But Ethan has serious literary ambitions, genuinely admires Olivia and flips when she lends him a Marguerite Duras novel (there we go again). He encourages her to re-enter the world of publishing, and frankly a couple of times simply throws her in against her wishes. When things start going her way (in Act Two, set in Olivia’s Chicago loft apartment), Ethan begins to get professionally jealous and also to behave more like his blog persona than the sensitive bloom for whom Olivia keeps falling during each stage blackout. Can their relationship survive?

Can we care? I’m afraid I couldn’t. It’s not that this world is alien to me – I’m a theatre critic, darlings – but Eason’s account of it is introspective enough to be alienating. Director Peter DuBois keeps things moving fluidly but does nothing to open it up. Emilia Fox is a fine actor, but that first act just has her as Olivia repeatedly parroting Ethan’s lines in incredulous questioning (‘Parroting in incredulous questioning?’) in a series of vocal whoops. Theo James (best known from the Divergent film series) gets a better deal as Ethan, but he’s so clearly not the viewpoint character that that’s not enough. And it’s a two- hander, so there’s no one – not even any actual events to speak of – to pique our interest. Not a page-turner.

Runs until 4 March at Hampstead Theatre, London NW3: 020-7722 9301, 

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