ALBANY – When a play that is rooted in steaming passion lacks heat you know there’s a problem. That’s the case in “Sex with Strangers” playing at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany through October 15. It’s a talky work with characters about whom it is difficult to care about.
The underlying theme of “Sex with Strangers” is the idea that no one is who they seem to be. Because we play many roles – public and private – we lack a true identity. Not only do strangers not know who we are. Worse, after a while the individual loses all sense of self. The play says, you can only play a role so long before you before you become that person.
The play centers on two writers who have little in common. Ethan is a 28 year old man who has written a book titled “Sex with Strangers.” It’s based on his blog that describes his sexual conquest of a different woman every week for a year. It became a best seller and has been optioned for a film.
Olivia is eleven years older than Ethan. She’s an intellectual writer who was so damaged by the negative reaction to her first novel she’s refused to submit to a publisher anything she’s written for the past 15 years. By all reports the book was genius, but was marketed badly. Olivia says “The people who would have liked it didn’t buy it because of its cover. And the people who did buy it hated it, because it wasn’t what they expected.”
The same dynamic is going on with the characters in “Sex with Strangers.” Both Olivia and Ethan are contradictions. Their covers do not show the person inside. He relishes his public persona but wants the respect that comes from being a sensitive, legitimate writer. She professes her desire to lead a private life, but covets the fame that comes with having written a best seller.
The same contradictions exist in their relationship. There are several scenes in which there is a lot of groping and casual loss of clothing going on between Ethan and Olivia. But it seems as false and as fabricated as their expressed literary goals. It is difficult to believe the two have a future. Indeed, it’s difficult to believe they would even have a one-night hook up.
Matters are made worse by the staging of the love scenes. In an apparent effort to make the moments inoffensive, director Stephen Nachamie stages them in such a tepid manner they make any sexual tension that exists between these two beautiful people seem boring. Indeed, the sex seems so programmed it is actually comical.
The actors each do an excellent job creating an individual character. Jenny Strassburg is terrific in revealing the shadings of Olivia over the course of the play. When we meet her at a snowed-in writers’ retreat, we believe she is a sincere woman who loves writing for the sake of writing. In the course of the play, she is brilliant in showing her evolution to a person who begins to lust for success. Actually, it seems she is willing to exploit the power of Ethan’s clout as he shapes her career and creates for her a public persona.
Ben Williamson is good as the sex symbol who might have more talent than he is given credit for. He might also be more able to have a relationship than his book suggests. Though a lout, Williamson is almost engaging as he shows that Ethan is truly unable to grasp why success is not justification for treating people badly.
The technical elements are terrific. Sebastian Panfili designs two distinctive sets and Rob Denton’s lights and projections help them come to life. Vanessa Leuck’s costumes are character perfect and help to accentuate the personalities of each individual.
Despite fine acting and excellent technical support “Sex with Strangers” is a disappointing experience. The play’s ending is a will they or won’t they moment. My response was, “Who cares?”
“Sex with Strangers” continues through October 15 at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany. For tickets and schedule information call 518-445-7469 or go to Capitalrep.org.
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.