Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Sex with Strangers
Not only does this production have two highly competent and engaging performers, it's also site-specific, adding tension and voyeurism to the play. But (unlike many site-specific productions) this performance space can accommodate up to 50 people in the audience. And you remain seated, allowing you to rest and relax, instead of following actors around the converted townhouse for two hours (although we gladly did so during Rebels and Misfits' most recent show, Hamlet: See What I See back in November, in a ballroom setting in the Grand Center arts district).
For Sex with Strangers, under the knowing direction of Michelle Bossy, a Central West End event space is transformed into a quiet, spare bed and breakfast near a Lake Michigan resort town, adding great atmosphere to the relationship between two young novelists, Ethan and Olivia, played here by Christopher Tipp and Kelly Hummert.
It's not really a "sex play," whatever that is, unless you're some kind of a monk. In fact, it's almost the exact opposite of the blazingly popular novel "Fifty Shades of Gray." Here, a very successful young man is regularly put into awkward and embarrassing situations, forced, because of his attraction to a relatively unknown woman, to embarrass himself by accounting for his own tawdry past and his climb to superstar-author status after writing a book titled (of course) "Sex with Strangers." The nice young woman is initially attracted to, and then repelled by, his public persona. And his struggle to win her over drives the whole brisk, two-hour play.
Mr. Tipp's Ethan is deceptively innocent and puppy-ish, despite the novelist's reputation, while Ms. Hummert's Olivia is quietly sensual and willing to pursue any workable solution to their relationship, even when pushed to the limit. He's become famous for "throwing it all out there" in his writing, and spends much of the play trying to retrace his steps back to a normal private life. Meanwhile, she's the other way round, trying to become more outwardly expressive to actualize private longings.
It's all brought off with style and grace, thanks to the endless charm of the two principles, and even a hint of danger. There's humor, of course, and unexpected seduction in the writer's yearning for praise, and a hint of envy over another's success. All of this draws us further into their story, which is only fleetingly sexual in content, as punctuation to end scenes, mostly. The very general sex talk is, in fact, just the window dressing on a slowly building, sometimes grueling story of ambition and art, and on making it in the cutthroat world of modern publishing.
I'm not disappointed at all, mind you, to be drawn in by a sexy title. It seems perfectly fitting these days, for publishing. But it's an unexpectedly romantic show, as one character tries to break free from his suffocating, squalid reputation, and the other is swept up in newfound glory. It leads to a tantalizing and even hopeful conclusion.
But in the end, the visceral jungle drums of this charming, intimate, and sometimes heartbreaking play belong more to that ruthless streak in The Lord of the Flies, rather than (for example) the hyper-sexualized nightclub in pre-revolutionary Havana, which we remember from The Godfather, Part II. There, raw sex was the the raison d'etre. Here, it's mostly just a clever lure drawing us into a fine, modern story of seduction and ambition.
Through April 15, 2017, at 4632 McPherson (at Walton Ave.), next to an open parking lot, a block east of Euclid. (In my experience, the lot is free in non-summer months, when unattended.) For tickets and information visit anintimatetheatreproject.com.
Cast (in order of appearance):