The playwright strives to create work for the ages, but Laura Eason’s “Sex With Strangers” is so topical it should have an expiration date.
Ethan, played with charismatic ferocity by Stephen Louis Grush, chronicles his sexual conquests in masochistic detail on his popular blog, which he’s parlayed into a bestelling book and a movie deal. (Tucker Max, anyone?) He meets Olivia, a technophobic almost-forty literary novelist, who’s trying to crank back up her long-stalled career. He repulses her with his story but charms her with praise of her story and before long he’s in her pants and in her business, helping her plug into the magical marketing power of the internet. The play, which I saw in a 2009 developmental incarnation as part of Steppenwolf’s “First Look Repertory of New Work,” is a study of the effects, both positive and negative, of the living-life-in-public phenomenon that the internet has fueled, through blogs, social media and so on. Ethan reads email and texts on his phone while in the middle of an intensely personal conversation with Olivia, behavior so common nowadays it almost seems beyond parody.
Ensemble member Sally Murphy imbues her Olivia with a pervasive sense of ambiguity; she is fragile, she is strong; she is depressed, she is cheery; she is steadfast, she is a sellout. She can’t resist this new young thing (Ethan and/or the internet) even as she is repelled by it. It’s a complex portrayal, especially paired against Grush’s tornadic Ethan, and one that could easily, if unfairly, be dismissed as timid.
Eason’s play, under the intimate direction of her longtime collaborator, director Jessica Thebus, crackles with energy and wit. It’s freshly loaded with e-books and smartphones and plenty of technology that will be replaced by something better tomorrow. Likewise, its ideas threaten to be extinct-on-arrival: the days of achieving easy celebrity on the web by blogging are long gone; is the willful abdication of privacy that’s underway a permanent condition or merely a short-term overreaction to new toys? Aren’t the world’s Olivias endangered species themselves: how many 40-year-olds do you know who remain naïve to the intimate invasiveness of the internet? More likely, they’re insatiable Facebookers. Like Olivia, the play’s fraught with uncertainty about its place and its destination: we might be heading into a dark cloud, but we just can’t resist taking the ride. (Brian Hieggelke)
At Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted, (312)335-1650, steppenwolf.org, through May 15. $20-$73.