News flash: People of different ages react differently to the digital age we live in, with older people clinging to their analog past while younger folks snap up the latest apps like mice encountering fresh crumbs of cheese. And, this just in: Young people and oldsters often have differing views on sex and personal relationships.
These are a couple of the central themes in Sex With Strangers by Laura Eason, now at the Cleveland Play House. And if you responded with “No, duh!” to either or both of those facts stated above, then this play may be less than stimulating for you. In a script that flogs those two thoughts until they can barely move, Eason states and restates the obvious while the CPH two-person cast works their buns off to ignite passion around the edges.
Once-published novelist Olivia is hanging out at a b-and-b in snowy rural Michigan when the successful Internet-based author Ethan shows up knocking at her door to find a warm place out of the blizzard. The almost-40 Olivia is busy proofing her new manuscript while Ethan, a bundle of energy and about ten years her junior, paces the floor and rattles off his resume.
It seems he’s well known for his latest opus, a book that carries the same title as this play, which chronicles his exploit of bedding a different woman every week for one year. Meanwhile Olivia has been licking her wounds from some unfortunate reviews of her first book, and she can’t abide the snarky troll comments that pop up on websites discussing her writing.
However, Ethan glories in the pans his work receives, and he’s turned that sex-drenched book into a dandy little cottage industry online. Unfortunately, the storm and the remote location of this cabin have eliminated Internet service, leaving Ethan frustrated and unable to text or tweet for minutes on end(“People will think I have died!”).
The playwright works hard to leverage the age difference of these two people into something dramatic. Eason has some clever and cute lines sprinkled throughout (when Ethan claims his book was on the New York Times best seller list for five years, Olivia registers some doubt, to which Ethan smirks: “Don’t you wish you could look it up?”).And there is some genuine sexual tension in the first act, as the two dance around each other and eventually start making out.
Monette Magrath as Olivia and Sean Hudock as Ethan find their moments of attraction in between their playful chatter about technology and such. And their brief sessions of kissy-face and grab-ass are convincingly portrayed. But Magrath doesn’t really convey the bearing and attitude of an “older woman,” so her eventual sexual release is less than liberating. For his part, Hudock has all the nervous-energy mannerisms of a guy on the make, but not quite enough of the inner through-line of this supposedly live-wire character.
There’s finally a bit more conflict in the second act, which takes place in Olivia’s Chicago apartment, as we see how each of these people is trying to use the other for their own purposes. Still, there seems to be little at stake in these proceedings other than better press clippings and bigger paychecks. And the ending lands with a surprisingly dull thud.
The actors aren’t particularly helped by Chelsea M. Warren’s admittedly handsome scenic design, which features a vast space for both the cabin and the apartment. Indeed, you could install a handball court in the open space provided by Warren, which leaves the actors to wander around and try to connect with each other.
There’s a desire here to explore how two people from two different generations pursue their ideas of success and their own identities. But because of a few production wrinkles, the finished product is a bit like a promising, but not exactly stupendous, first date.
Sex With Strangers
Through November 13 at the Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, Outcalt Theatre, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.