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Sex With Strangers

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Is there much point in discussing the content of Laura Eason's play Sex With Strangers, which just opened at Second Stage? The publicity photo, looming over the theater and emblazoned on the Playbill cover, would seem to spill all the beans: two incredibly hot actors, Billy Magnussen and Anna Gunn, clutching while throwing a joint smoldering look at us as his smartphone gleams alluringly in his one semi-free hand. None of this gives you the impression that this is some complex, psychologically probing work. And five minutes of watching this play—pick any five minutes you choose—will not disabuse you of this notion.

Though Eason and her director, David Schwimmer, make a grand show of, well, trying to make a grand show, this production is all about Magnussen and Gunn, and anything else you take away from it —which is not likely to be much—is incidental. But if the bad news is that this isn't enough to make the evening any sort of objective success, it's still more than sufficient to fashion a potboiler steamy enough to set your already sweltering summer evenings genuinely aflame.

Because, when it comes to explosive chemistry, these two actors have it in blessed abundance. It's not just that Magnussen (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) has an impeccable gym-carved physique and the magnetic laid-back mien of an independently wealthy California surfer, or that Gunn (an Emmy winner for Breaking Bad) wields a sophisticated sultriness that's a delectable match for her own lithe form and pointed, punchy attitude. It's that these qualities mesh so superbly, each performer filling in the gaps and the other, and creating, during dialogue and hot-and-heavy scenes alike, the unquenchable belief that these two personalities, and for that matter these two bodies, were designed to occupy the same place at the same time.

What's more, they maintain this intensity for all but the first few moments of the nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time. But across a series of scenes that chronicle a relationship full of ins and outs, ups and downs, comings and goings, and betrayals and forgiveness, Magnussen and Gunn have together crafted a single entity of such intoxicating, preternatural heat that you'll scarcely be able to rip your eyes away from it for fear you'll miss some minute nuance of the impressive lust the duo displays.

If only the play itself were compelling enough to justify any of it. Underlying the throbbing passions of the stars is a story choked with dust and indifference, and one that does no favors to Magnussen, Gunn, Schwimmer, or for that matter the audience.

Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen.
Photo by Joan Marcus

It posits that Olivia (Gunn) is a pretentious author on the outs after her first flopped some 15 years earlier, and that Ethan (Magnussen) is a Tucker Max┬ľstyle blogger-raconteur who made a fortune writing about sleeping with a hundred anonymous women over the course of a year (his website's name is the same as the play's title), but now wants to pen something more significant. So when the two meet at a writer's B&B retreat in rural Michigan, they complement each other artistically, which naturally leads to their repeated physical, and ostensibly emotional, coupling.

Eason does delve a bit deeper, suggesting that there's more at play here than just hormones and career aspirations run amok. And the second act, set when the two have returned to the reality of everyday life in Chicago and try to make something tangible of their earlier fantasy, supports this, twisting every which way to prove that innocence is not always as clear-cut as it appears to be, and that it's not always just the womanizer who's out to screw others for purposes of making a quick buck. Ultimately, however, their philosophical back-and-forth feels like little more than an excuse for all the sex scenes and talk.

It's not easy to accept Olivia's traditionalism—she won't believe she's really "made it" as a writer until she can hold a book, with paper pages, in her hand—when she spreads her legs for Ethan as quickly as she does (we're talking a matter of minutes, here). Though Ethan is supposedly something of a genius himself, no excerpts of either his "fratire" or "serious" writing exist to prove the argument one way or another. For that matter, we're also supposed to take Olivia's superior ability on faith, but it's not even possible to determine what her magnum opus was about, and Ethan is so circumspect in discussing it that it never seems like it could actually bring two people together the way it does. And late-show plot developments, surrounding the release of Ethan's publishing app (yes, seriously), and the release of Olivia's second book, are first glossed over, then resolved so off-handedly that you may miss them altogether, even if you're paying resolute attention.

Gunn brings as much credibility to her portion of this silliness as anyone could, and there's a thoughtfulness and an intelligence to her portrayal that are generally in line with Olivia as written (even if Gunn has difficulty transitioning into the very different woman who occupies the last couple of scenes). Magnussen doesn't falter in depicting Ethan's more vapid side, but is rather less convincing showing us his other half as a book-devourer, literary critic, and high-minded wordsmith. And though the play tilts on the difference between Ethan's perceived public persona and his private behavior, Magnussen's particular style of playfulness, which involves lots of mock-strutting and falsetto-toned pseudo-commentary, seems to run counter to it.

Not keeping better rein on him is a rare mistake from Schwimmer, whose staging here is otherwise commendable at keeping the pacing right and the atmosphere rich; Andromache Chalfant's sets, luxurious for Michigan and depressively utilitarian for Chicago, and Japhy Weideman's provocative lighting help as well.

But all that really matters, of course, are Magnussen and Gunn, who scorch the stage as long as all Ethan and Olivia have to do is give in to each other (which, fear not, they do time and time again). And, given the structure and focus of Sex With Strangers, most of the time that really is enough. It's just a challenge not to wish that, once the actors' clothes come off, the drama underneath were every bit as naked and chiseled as they are.

Sex With Strangers
Through August 24
Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street
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