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Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Sex with Strangers
Left Edge Theatre
Review by Jeanie K. Smith | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of Late Company

Dean Linnard and Sandra Ish
Photo by Eric Chazankin
When confronted with a choice between fame or obscurity, between celebrity or ho-hum existence, which would you choose? Even if it meant setting aside your long-held principles and ethics? Even if it depended on a fake identity and persona on the internet? Powerful questions of identity and behavior in the digital age arise for the two characters in Laura Eason's stirring play. Strong actors and attractive production values give it a solid, thought-provoking rendition at Left Edge Theatre.

Olivia (Sandra Ish) mutters to herself, "Who are you?" as she spies out the window at a car that has pulled up, in a blizzard, to a writer's retreat in remote Michigan. Soon she reluctantly agrees to share the cabin with Ethan (Dean Linnard), whose stated credentials and mutual acquaintances seem safe enough, at least for one night. But as they talk, sharing writing interests—she's proofing her novel, he's working on one—it surfaces that Ethan actually came because he knew Olivia would be there, and has in fact read, and loved, her first book.

Surprised and a bit shaken by this stalkerish revelation, Olivia nevertheless is intrigued and ultimately flattered by Ethan's admiration of her writing, since that first book didn't fare well in the competitive market—a boldly lyrical read, it was killed by a misleading chick-lit book cover. Hearing Ethan wax poetic over the book and how important it is for her voice to be heard is music indeed, and proves to be a potent aphrodisiac when combined with Ethan's stories of his celebrity status.

Turns out Ethan already has two books of his own, penned in the name of his internet persona Ethan Strange, titled "Sex with Strangers," "One" and "Two." They're the blogged results of a bet that he could shag a total stranger he meets in a bar or other public place (not online), one a week for a year. A movie version is already in the works, with Ethan rushing to finish the screenplay.

Initially repulsed by his sexual exploits, Olivia begins to admire Ethan's internet savvy and self-published success, especially as he asserts how different he is now from "that guy" who did the deeds. "I was acting" he insists, persuading her with his sincerity and warmth—and his youthful, brashly sexual energy. Do they have sex? Spoiler alert—yes, they do, and more than once. Does a true relationship develop? You'll have to decide that one for yourself—and wonder who is relating to whom. When Ethan sets up the means for Olivia to gain the success she craves, the affair ratchets up a notch, leaving our heads spinning with both thrills and doubts.

It's a tasty conundrum, adroitly engineered by Eason with wit and wisdom, offering heady dilemmas regarding success and fame and how we define and pursue these elusive sirens, particularly in this digital era when fame can too easily slide into infamy. But beyond that, she also skewers our anchors of identity, including age, gender and values. Sorting the true from the fictional becomes a guessing game, as does the answer to the question of who is using whom.

A play with only two actors depends greatly on the abilities of its performers, and Ish and Linnard are nimble, proficient and interesting to watch, excellent and seasoned professionals. That they lack chemistry as a couple is somewhat built in to the script; the characters' personalities and worlds are so different right from the start. But one might hope that the rampant sex and declarations of love accrue into a recognizable, visible connection, and, though the actors expertly express their feelings, such chemistry doesn't develop. Given that it's an odd pairing at the outset, perhaps this is a forgivable shortcoming; the play's searing themes and challenges still come through loud and clear.

Argo Thompson's stylish set design travels from a minimalist Michigan cabin to a nicely appointed Chicago apartment, and Joe Winkler's sound design travels in time and taste to capture the two characters' worlds. Lighting design by April George provides a beautiful blizzard in act one, but oddly zeroes in on the couple at times. Sandra Ish does double duty as costume designer, offering fairly mundane but appropriate outfits.

A contemporary piece with themes both timely and ageless, Eason's play supplies food for thought and post-show discussion, and may even challenge your thinking about blogging—or sex with strangers.

Left Edge Theatre's Sex with Strangers, through February 17, 2019, at Studio Theater, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, 50 Mark West Springs Rd., Santa Rosa CA. Tickets $25.00-$40.00 can be purchased online at or by phone at 707-546-3600

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