Regional Reviews: Las Vegas
Sex With Strangers
Laura Eason's Sex With Strangers, a contemporary romantic comedy that owes some of its inspiration to A Star is Born, tells the tale of two talented writers who cross paths at very different points in their careers. Romantic sparks fly, but betrayals create a chasm of mistrust that may be difficult to bridge.
Olivia (Diana Osborn) is stalled at mid-career after her first book failed to find its audience, apparently because her publisher mistakenly promoted it as stereotypical chick lit. In contrast, the boyish Ethan (David Kurtz) has shot to fame and fortune with his pseudonymous first book, a semi-autobiographical account of his innumerable sexual encounters that can best be described as misogynistic soft porn. The two are thrown together at a snowbound writer's retreat after all of the other guests have cancelled due to the storm. Both of them proclaim that they came here to focus on their writing without distractions. In Ethan's case, this may or may not be true.
Ethan, it turns out, is a huge fan of Olivia's short-lived first book, and in his next work he wants to emulate her and be taken more seriously as a writer. Despite the notoriety of Ethan's tell-all book (and its lengthy tenure on the New York Times Best Seller list), Olivia implausibly knows nothing about it. Although she is appalled when he describes it, she dismisses her misgivings because, let's face it, Ethan is cute, young, flattering, and unapologetically on the make. With nothing better to do (because there's no TV or wifi, and because writers are always happy to, y'know, not write), they decide to have sex. Lots of it. During a break, he reads her new manuscript against her wishes, and persuades her to give publishing another try, by reissuing her first book as an ebook using a new title and a pseudonym. He will lubricate the launch with some fake reviews and tweets to his many followers. The relaunch is a success, and Olivia's confidence is restored.
After Ethan leaves town to work on his movie deal in Hollywood, Olivia actually reads his book, and is shockedSHOCKEDat its content. The next time they meet, mistrust has roiled the romantic waters, and Olivia's renewed devotion to her literary ambition leaves Ethan feeling unappreciated. His rash response threatens to derail both their careers and their relationship.
The stakes are not terribly high in Eason's script, because she doesn't make us care all that much about her characters. And listening to writers talk about writingwhich is mostly what Olivia and Ethan do when they're not having sexis not especially exciting, especially when the writers are fictional people talking about fictional books. On the other hand, Eason's dialogue does have its moments, and the storyline is mildly interesting, making Sex with Strangers a pleasant evening of theatre.
David Kurtz embodies Ethan as a twitchy, cat-like, manspreading boy/man in constant motion, with an oral fixation on crunchy snacks. It is easy to believe that this hyped-up bundle of hormones could bed a different stranger every night and still have the energy to tweet, write, blog, and make movie deals.
Because the play is mostly talk (with the sex happening offstage), the naturally peripatetic Ethan keeps the stage picture from becoming too static. While understandably sensitive to the need to have some onstage action, director Sarah O'Connell over-compensates by keeping Olivia in constant motion as well. As a result, Diana Osborn's performance comes across as overly mannered. She criss-crosses the room for no apparent reason, and her exaggerated reactions are not what one expects from an intelligent and introspective writer.
The energy in Sex With Strangers should come not from stage directions but from the heat generated by Ethan and Olivia's intense coupling. Unfortunately, the heat is missing in this production. Even if the actual sex takes place offstage, the characters should not seem completely detached from one another whenever they emerge from the bedroom. Kurtz and Osborn simply lack chemistry. There is a snog or two here and there, but these are brief and unconvincing, as though the actors just want to get it over with and then go home and apologize to their spouses.
Some of this may have been first night jitters, just as the actors seemed at times to rush through their lines in fear of forgetting them. Hopefully, they will settle into their roles later in the run and start to generate those sorely needed sparks.
Katie Shanahan's set design is functional and effective, although the writer's retreat and Olivia's apartment look much too similar. (The sofa could at least be in a different position.) Kendra Harris's evocative lighting design subtly suggests the cold winter light peeking through the shades at the cozy retreat.
Sex With Strangers continues through February 19, 2017 (Thursday-Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm) at the Las Vegas Little Theatre's Black Box, 3920 Schiff Dr., Las Vegas, NV. For tickets ($15, seniors and students $14) and other information, go to www.lvlt.org or call 702-362-7996.