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Is this a play or a travel ad at the back of The New York Review of Books?
As it turns out, it’s a play, and a good one, cleverly flying just under the radar of “importance.” Which is also what the fortyish Olivia (Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn) is doing.
And though he’s an unqualified and hilarious success, that success unbalances the play a bit, pushing it past its genre boundaries into Bad Boyfriend territory. (“You can’t keep this from the world,” Ethan insists.) Even less convincingly, Eason asks us to believe that Ethan himself, who thinks in bursts of 140 characters, is able to write something Olivia can honestly describe as “poetic” and “haunting.” (His abs are poetic and haunting, I grant you, but his prose?
I spent way too much time wondering if Ethan would eventually be revealed as a liar or a sex maniac or an invention of Neil La Bute, with a wager riding on his seduction of Olivia. ) In attempting this unlikely turn, and a double-axel plot twist near the end, Eason seems to have followed the same questionable (or at any rate double-edged) advice an agent gives Olivia about making her manuscript more conventional and thus salable.
In its upper-middlebrow way it engages useful and current questions about the fate of publishing (the play namechecks everything from Smashwords to Jeffrey Eugenides), the limits of public transparency, and the meaning of intimacy in a hook-up culture.You can feel the electricity of her awakening to Ethan’s offers of redemption: through sex, yes, but also through the internet. The fascinating question is: If he admits to being an asshole, is he no longer one? In the age of overshare, Eason seems to suggest, it becomes difficult to tell the difference between Twitter and psychopathology.Magnussen, who as Spike in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike got good practice embodying immodest boytoyism, has the opposite challenge with Ethan, making this unbridled, appetitive Peter Pan seem human enough to matter to the likes of Olivia. I wish the play could get to these nifty ideas through subtler mechanics; it’s the kind of story in which Olivia’s work must be accepted as brilliant for the plot to turn.Which is all a way of saying that Sex With Strangers is a disappointment.It has topics but no ideas, relevance but no importance. The brightly designed American Stage production (living room sets by Steven K.
Anyway, that’s what Laura Eason has done in Sex With Strangers, at Second Stage, making it seem, but only for the first few minutes, like part of the New York theater world’s late-summer ritual of dumping inventory too insubstantial for the rest of the year.