Cleveland Play House’s romantic comedy ‘Sex With Strangers’ seduces, satisfies
By Bob Abelman
The Cleveland Play House’s intimate, subterranean Outcalt Theatre is quickly becoming the place where carnality and clever writing come together for an evening of mutual and consensual gratification.
Following in the footsteps of recent productions of David Ives’ psycho-sexual drama, “Venus in Fur” and Sarah Ruhl’s sex comedy, “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play,” Laura Eason’s “Sex With Strangers” is on stage under Joanie Schultz’s superb direction.
The play received its world premiere production in 2011 at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.
Snowbound in a cozy Michigan B&B and working on her latest novel after the first earned only a modicum of success amid high expectations, Olivia’s (Monette Magrath) cherished quiet time is disrupted by a late-arriving guest.
Ethan (Sean Hudock) is a professional blogger whose sleazy online reports of his numerous one-night stands with strangers have been turned into wildly successful books. He has come to the B&B to escape his newfound fame, edit the screenplay for the optioned film, and work on the serious novel he knows he has within him.
With the internet down, no television set available and the fireplace glowing, the arrogant and attractive 28-year-old Ethan and the insecure and nearly 40-year-old Olivia fall into each other’s arms. And they do exactly what the characters in “Venus in Fur” and “In the Next Room” did: talk about sex with some explicitness and go off stage to have at it.
Throughout their physical lust-fest and the truly impressive make-out sessions that are nicely choreographed by Schultz, Eason’s characters also lust after each other’s accomplishments. Olivia craves Ethan’s notoriety; he craves Olivia’s credibility.
As the two become increasingly involved in one another’s lives and the B&B in Act 1 gives way to Olivia’s Chicago apartment in Act 2 – both of which are authentic and beautifully appointed locations designed by Chelsea M. Warren and lit by Michael Boll – red flags surface regarding their true intentions and potentially hidden agendas. This hints at the possibility of sexual and emotional gamesmanship being played.
What makes this play so very interesting in not just the seduction being performed by and between Ethan and Olivia; it’s the seduction of the audience by the playwright who, as a writer for Netflix’s hit political drama “House of Cards,” has mastered the dark art.
Eason lures us in with sex, romance and absolutely engaging writing, while managing to subtly introduce issues of substance. While the players strut and fret upon the stage in their underwear, accompanied by the sexy blues and hard-driving rock of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals (courtesy of sound designer Thomas Dixon), the playwright explores the evils of ambition, the power of the internet to invent or reinvent identity, and the continuing struggles of women artists.
The actors are busy seducing the audience as well, by hinting at but never quite revealing their characters’ true intentions. We can sense an undercurrent of mistrust and tension as Hudock and Magrath recognize and ride the play’s shifting rhythms and dynamics, but it is never fully exposed until the end of this two-hander.
It is testimony to these actors’ fine performances and remarkable chemistry that Ethan’s virile arrogance is such a perfect fit with Olivia’s vulnerability that their mutual attraction seems plausible. And as the play evolves and each characters’ strong suits and debilitating weaknesses shift power positions – artistically represented by an intriguing shift in scenic design – that, too, is believable.
At the end of last Saturday night’s performance, more patrons than usual appeared to be rushing outside for a smoke. If that isn’t a sign of a satisfying sex comedy, I don’t know what is. CV
WHAT: “Sex With Strangers”
WHERE: Outcalt Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Nov. 13
TICKETS & INFO: $25-$90, call 216-241-6000 or visit clevelandplayhouse.com
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 30, 2016.
Lead image: Monette Magrath (Olivia) and Sean Hudock (Ethan). PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni