When creatives and chemistry collide…
Sex with Strangers … now that’s a title that sells. Judging by the four or so sex scenes before interval, I can report to the voyeurs out there that the title isn’t just a marketing tease full of empty promises. But the play, penned by Laura Eason is so much more than that so let’s not talk about the sex… yet.
Set in a rural Michigan B&B, often used as a writer’s retreat, this two hander rom-com co-stars Veronica Neave as Olivia, a reclusive novelist and self-imposed hobbyist. Destroyed by a few negative reviews from her first novel, Olivia is now just finishing off her second novel, written just for her own private pleasure. That is until she meets avid fan, blogger, and Wi-Fi addict, Ethan Strange, played brilliantly by Thomas Larkin. Charismatic and cocky Ethan, who like the blizzard outside, comes blowing in, gate-crashing Olivia’s quiet retreat, and forges a new chapter in Olivia’s life.
Catapulted into celebrity status and the New York Times bestseller list, from writing a salacious memoir blog-turned-book about sleeping with one hundred randoms titled ‘Sex With Strangers’, Ethan comes to the retreat to finish off a screenplay draft of the book (while also hoping to ‘bump into’ his writing idol).
The cosy set design (Troy Armstrong) consisted of the lounge area in the writer’s retreat – a couch, chair, coffee table and lots of books… but no internet or mobile signal. For 30-something Olivia, the forced distraction-free environment is a godsend but for 20-something Ethan, is life or death, digitally speaking, as he panics about people thinking he’s dead if he doesn’t reply to a tweet in five minutes.
A play of the now, the writing is witty, insightful, and a fresh look at relationships in the digital age, where it’s less about your status in your local community, and more about your status on facebook that matters. It poses some running social commentary on the evolution and impact of technology on our lives, relationships, careers, and even our personas. It also provides an interesting exploration of one’s motivations and aspirations that are sometimes at odds with our heart. Interestingly the generational relationship between cougar Olivia and young Ethan, was mostly shown through their difference of relating to technology than each other.
Under the nurturing direction of multi-award winning Jennifer Flowers, the performances are nuanced, funny, touching, courageous, and a depth that reveals the raw emotional roller-coaster that relationships go on, including those emotions that we so desperately try to hide from each other.
Veronica Neave as Olivia was as always, a consummate performer, delicately balancing a strength and integrity of character, with a vulnerable crushed soul. Disappointingly, the first act driven mostly by Larkin, felt a little confining for the actor who has so much more acting chops to give than the script allowed; until the second act when things got juicy.
Thomas Larkin as Ethan was sizzling. I have watched Larkin develop and emerge as one of Brisbane hottest ticket actors and now I get it. Although the first burst onto the stage felt a little hyper-acted with scattered energy like a dog marking his territory (or maybe that was the point), Larkin really settled into the part, which allowed me as an audience member to then settle into the play. After that, Larkin was totally captivating as the charismatic, overly confident Ethan Strange. But it was the vulnerability behind the bravado, which the actor allowed to shine through, that was impressive and lovely to watch.
And now let’s talk about the sex; the sex scenes… were hot. They were well choreographed (Lisa Wilson), with stylised movement, giving them a poetry that was sensual, playful, and titillating while not being gratuitously long. The curt but clever snap-to-black lighting (Jason Glenwright and Tim Gawne), at the end of each sex romp was like a cold shower to refresh and re-calibrate the audience for the next scene.
The subtle soundscape (Dane Alexander) paralleled the dramatic tension, and the contemporary music composition fitted the setting well. In fact, my plus one who is a non-theatre type made mention of the cool soundtrack, which says a lot for a theatrical element that often goes unnoticed.
There seemed to be a long scene change just before interval, which gave a false ending to act one. While timing in the script and delivery is important, so is the timing of cues to give an audience when and when not to clap. No one wants to feel stupid by clapping (or not clapping) at the right time, so perhaps this could be tweaked to help us out.
Sex with Strangers starts out as an unassuming love-romp but becomes increasingly complex with its unpredictable plot twists, ambiguous ending, and many-layered themes that run throughout (ethics, trust, ambition, relationships in the digital age, the generation gap, career versus love, and private versus public). A sign of a great play (like great sex), is not only entertaining and fun while participating, but provides great post-play discussion. Sex with Strangers is one of those plays, and is on at the Brisbane Powerhouse for a limited season until July 26.