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Sex with Strangers at the Second Stage Theater

Sex with Strangers is an enjoyable old-fashioned love story in the social media age. Two people meet in a secluded inn in the woods. No one else is staying at the inn, including the owner. There is no cellular signal and the wi-fi is not working—the repairman has been delayed by a storm. One of them is almost 40-year old Olivia: teacher, and author of a failed, out of print novel. She is at the inn to work on a new novel she is writing with no intention of publishing. Olivia is played by Anna Gunn, best known for her leading role on Breaking Bad. She looks and sounds different here—she is much thinner now and she seems younger and less matronly.

Enter 28-year old Ethan, played by Billy Magnussen, who was terrific in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. He tells Olivia that he is a writer on a deadline. His first book, Sex with Strangers, spent 5 years on the New York Times bestseller list and is about to be turned into a film. The book began as a dare and a blog. His friends told him that girls no longer want to pick up guys in bars—they prefer the internet, because they can find out a lot more about people. Ethan, a cocky, charismatic guy (who, by now, everyone has decided is a jerk) decided to prove his friends wrong by having a one-night stand at least weekly with someone he picks up in a bar. He then wrote about it on his blog. He became so popular that “I Slept with Ethan” websites started popping up where the women told their sides of the stories.

Of course, in the play “Sex with Strangers, “ we know that Olivia and Ethan are going to have sex and they do, very soon after meeting. But the play headed in a completely different direction to what I was expecting.   I thought Ethan would turn out to be something very different from what he said—kind of like a face-to-face catfish. Since they had no internet access, none of his information was verifiable. In fact the first act ended with Olivia finally getting wi-fi access, googling Ethan, and then exclaiming something like “Oh Shit”.   But, I learned in Act II, I was wrong.

Anna Gunn and Billy Magnusen

Act II. We jump ahead in time. Ethan and Olivia are still seeing each other. Everything he told her was true. Olivia is trying to reconcile the Ethan she knows with his public persona. In the meantime, he has used his publishing connections to help Olivia get her novel published, but now he would like to start an online publishing venture and he would like her to help him with the rights to her book.

It turns out the play is an old-fashioned love story, exploring questions like how well do we know our partners? How do relationships change as partners grow and mature? How much of relationships are love and how much opportunism? How much is timing? How does the success of a partner change a relationship? How much does age matter? Where does lust end and love start?

Sex With Strangers

By Laura Eason; directed by David Schwimmer; sets by Andromache Chalfant; costumes by ESosa; lighting by Japhy Weideman; sound by Fitz Patton; production stage manager, Scott Taylor Rollison; associate artistic director, Christopher Burney; production manager, Jeff Wild; general manager, Seth Shepsle. Presented by Second Stage Theater, Carole Rothman, artistic director; Casey Reitz, executive director. At Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, Clinton; 212-246-4422, 2st.com. Through Aug. 31. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.

WITH: Anna Gunn (Olivia) and Billy Magnussen (Ethan).