Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Also see Bill's review of Relatively Speaking
Sex with Strangers is by far the best of the three; I found it enthralling from the first few minutes straight through. It is the story of Olivia, a teacher in her late 30s, and novelist Ethan, a younger author, five years on the New York Times best seller list for a book with less artistic merit than Olivia's first one. They meet, only partly by chance, at a secluded lodge, begin a relationship which progresses through act one and comes apart in act two.
The arc of this relationship rings true, emotions all over the place, intimacy at times being quite real if not as deeply felt as it could be later, and sometimes intimacy only imagined. The flotsam and jetsam of new love. In the second act, they progress to the point where the center of the relationship exists on calmer waters but the emotional highs are higher and the lows are fiercely lower. All of this is set against today's digital worldless communication and more potential for isolation, even when people are face to face. My companion for the afternoon and I agreed that we found the play fascinating, but when we started to discuss it in more depth, we found that we had completely different takes on what the central issues were. I, who have been in the dating world for far too much of the past 12 years, zeroed in on the nuanced portrayal of this relationship, while my friend, in a solid relationship for 31 years, focused on the characters' differing views of personal and professional success. In the lobby, audience members are invited to jot a note about their reaction to the play and, sadly, I read that a fair number of respondents seem to have a bad case of disconnect with this play.
A play this brilliant deserves acting on the same high level and American Stage delivers. Both Corey Urban as Olivia and Ben Williamson as Ethan are able to portray the deep layers of emotional depth written into the script. I have seen Mr. Williamson in several productions as he made his way through Asolo Conservatory. In 4000 Miles and Isaac's Eye he portrayed characters who had not grown into their full adult confidence, and now he plays someone who has gone through this phase and desperately wants to become a more mature man, but in moments of stress is capable of taking an emotional flight backwards. Ms. Urban's Olivia has retreated into a safer world, not risking challenges. When Ethan begins to prod her into realizing her greater potential, we see her confidence slowly grow. Both performances are richly human and the chemistry between the two is also strong.
Janis Stevens does a masterful job directing; the very strong performances and all the technical elements are an integral part of this storytelling. Steven K. Mitchell's set designs are lovely. The first act lodge is cozy and inviting, the second act set in Olivia's apartment is maybe just a bit of a stretch for a failed novelist turned teacher, but I sure wouldn't mind living there, with the exposed brick and gorgeous view from a large window. Jill Castle's costumes are dramatically right and Joseph Oshrey's lighting helps set the mood of each scene. Jerid Fox is properties master and Rachel Harrison is responsible for sound design and is our production stage manager.
What a spring/summer season it has been at American Stagethree interesting modern dramas, all thought provoking, with Sex with Strangers the strongest. Next season in these slots we will be offered Marjorie Prime, Strait of Gibraltar, and Bad Jews. I can hardly wait!
Sex with Strangers runs through August 6, 2017, at American Stage Theatre Company, 163 Third Street North, St. Petersburg FL. For more information, visit www.americanstage.org.
Cast: Olivia: Carey Urban*