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.
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).
The Claire Tow Theater is a 112-seat theater at Lincoln Center. It was built on top of the building that houses the larger Vivian Beaumont and Mitzi Newhouse Theaters and opened just two years ago. The Claire Tow houses Lincoln Center’s “LCT3” program: theater featuring new playwrights, directors and designers. All of the tickets for the Claire Tow productions are just $20. Lincoln Center is targeting a new audience of 21-35 year olds with inexpensive tickets at Claire Tow and a program they can sign up for which features post-theater parties and $32 tickets to the main theaters. (The shows I’ve attended are getting a much older demographic, though–pretty typical for matinees).
The LCT3 program started in 2008 with just two shows a year–but with a dedicated theater, they have increased that number to three or four plus some special events. I only started attending this past fall. I saw Luce by JC Lee in the fall and Stop Hitting Yourself by Kirk Lynn and the Austin, Texas-based ensemble theater group Rude Mechs.
This week I saw my third LCT3 play: “The Who and The What” by Ayad Akhtar. Interestly, LCT3 featured another Akhtar play, “Disgraced,” just last season. Disgraced won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Akhtar is also an actor and novelist (American Dervish).
“The Who and The What” is a story about an American family centered around a domineering father. The mother has died of cancer and the father and his two grown daughters are adjusting. The family are immigrants from Pakistan and, though everyone is dressed in modern clothing, we figure out that their Muslim religion is central for all of them.
The play deals with how the girls make decisions about their own lives, taking into account the expectations of their father and their community, their religion and their own desires. In particular, the play focuses on each girl’s decision to marry. The father is responsible for the break-up of the older daughter, Zarina’s previous engagement to a non-Muslim. But he is also responsible for her new relationship to Eli, a white convert to Muslim who is a the leader of a mosque. The younger daughter, Mahwish, is engaged to a Muslim she has known for her whole life. But is he really the one for her?
I enjoyed the play. I enjoyed the actors and the family dynamics. The father was a bundle of contradictions–he happily adopted modern technology and was proud of his daughters’ accomplishments, but retained old-fashioned ideas. He seems caring and sensitive, but can turn dark and insulting. He says the only thing worthwhile he has produced are his daughters, but he is willing to turn his back on them. Bernard White’s portrayal of the father constantly surprised me. Some of the interpersonal dynamics were overly simplified, though, in order to spend more time on religious themes. For example, I would have like to know more about Mahwish’s relationship to her fiancé. Instead it is all summed up in one sexual act.
Some of the religious nuances were lost on me. The broader themes of faith, dealing with modern life, and how women are treated in Islamic culture include detailed discussions such as Zarina pointing out that the interpretations of scripture that resulted in Muslim women wearing the veil are faulty.
In addition, I had a hard time relating to a large part of the story which centers on how Mohammed, the Prophet, is portrayed in Muslim culture and how he lives in people’s hearts and minds. Zarina was always the brains in the family. She graduated Harvard, got an MFA and is writing a novel about women and Islam. She’s been writing it for a few years and, until she meets Eli, she has a bad case of writer’s block. Her book is an imagined story of Mohammed, the Prophet, making him more human. How she has written about the Prophet in her novel becomes a key part of the play. For me, the vehemence of the reaction to her book, which is based on strong personal connections between believers and the Prophet, is hard to fathom. In the end, I left feeling that religion brought only unhappiness and discord to this family, not joy.
The Who & the What
By Ayad Akhtar; directed by Kimberly Senior; sets by Jack Magaw; costumes by Emily Rebholz; lighting by Japhy Weideman; sound by Jill B C Du Boff; stage manager, Megan Schwarz Dickert; general manager, Jessica Niebanck; production manager, Jeff Hamlin. Presented by LCT3, Lincoln Center Theater, André Bishop, producing artistic director; Adam Siegel, managing director; Paige Evans, artistic director/LCT3. At the Claire Tow Theater, Lincoln Center; 212-239-6200, lct3.org. Through July 13. Running time: two hours.
WITH: Tala Ashe (Mahwish), Greg Keller (Eli), Nadine Malouf (Zarina) and Bernard White (Afzal).
WHAT OTHER PEOPLE ARE SAYING ABOUT “THE WHO & THE WHAT”
The New York Times gave it a mixed review
Newsday wasn’t thrilled in its review
The New York Post in its review also preferred Akhtar’s earlier play, “Disgraced”