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Strangers Are Having Sex at the Vortex – Or, How Social Media Treats the Novel
The Vortex Theatre

Also see Daryl's review of Picnic

Michael Weppler and Bridget Kelly

Sex with Strangers opens with Ethan (Michael Weppler) arriving unexpectedly at the door of a Michigan B&B during a snowstorm. Olivia (Bridget Kelly) lets him in reluctantly. She is on retreat editing her second novel, which has been in the works for ages. They’re strangers, they’re both writers, and soon enough, they’ll have sex. He’s in his late 20s, and she’s around 40.

Sex with Strangers is also the name of Ethan’s first book, a bestseller based on his blog about having sex with a different woman every week for a year. The bestseller was followed by a second successful book on the same subject, different year. Now it’s getting made into a movie, and Ethan has arrived at the B&B to edit the script.

As with any strong play – and Sex with Strangers is strong enough – it’s clear what each character wants. Ethan wants literary legitimacy. He knows he’s been slumming his talent (and his body) and now he wants to get serious artistically. He sees Olivia as keenly devoted to her writing as art. She’s someone who might be able to see through his shiny successful faced to his true quality – as a writer and as a man.

Olivia wants recognition for the years of tireless effort with her writing. Her first novel was a literary work that was marketed with a Chick Lit cover. With that cover, serious readers wouldn’t touch it, and Chick Lit readers were disappointed by its content. Having touched the hot stove of rejection, she is terrified of submitting her second novel that was years in the making – even though she knows it’s good. When the story opens, she has relegated herself to a teaching career, writing on the side.

Each character sees redemption in the other. Ethan believes Olivia can give him legitimacy, and Olivia comes to believe Ethan can help her find some level of commercial acceptance.

Ethan is running the show. He seduces Olivia with praise for her work – which he has studied prior to appearing at the B&B. Olivia is skeptical of Ethan, sensing that he is smart enough to disguise manipulation as sincerity. But what the hell – he’s cute, he’s young, and he has an agent she might borrow. So things go well with these strangers, and then inevitably, things go wrong.

We can see it coming. It’s clear that Ethan isn’t really going to switch from a professional young cad at the top of his game to a sincere partner for an aging women, no matter how talented she might be. It’s also clear that Olivia knows this truth. So when Ethan accuses her of using him, what the hell, he’s right. But how deeply can she actually hurt a professionally young cad at the top of his game?

Not sure how much we really learn through Sex with Strangers, but it’s a smart and funny ride. Both characters are quick and interesting, and Eason’s writing is crisp and fun to be around. It’s a good play even if it doesn’t go for a deep soul dive.

Director Leslee Richards sets the play at the right pace and keeps the characters in balance. It’s confident direction that lets us focus on the characters. Just right. The performances by Weppler and Kelly are solid. Weppler nails Ethan, keeping him from becoming just a stud while showing that yes, he.s a stud.

Kelly’s performance is particularly brave. She oozes vulnerabilities without ever slipping into victimhood. Olivia is slightly broken and she’s sliding downhill, but she knows it and she’s getting hers. Kelly delivers such an honest display of Olivia, it’s sometimes close to embarrassing. Just right again.

Kudos to the production crew, particularly the set design by David LaFonte. Both the B&B in the first act and Olivia’s Chicago apartment in the second act are superb, down to every piece of furniture, every rug, every book on the bookshelf (prop designer Frank Fine). It’s also great to see a new play.

Sex with Strangers, written by Laura Eason and directed by Leslee Richards, will run at The Vortex Theatre, 2900 NE, through September 13. The show starts at 7:30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2:00 pm on Saturdays and Sundays. General admission tickets are $22, $19 for ATG or TLC members, $15 for students. You can buy tickets online at or by phone at 247-8600.

Photo: Christy Lopez

--Rob Spiegel

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