Encore Michigan

“Sex with Strangers” at Detroit Public thoughtful and titillating

Review March 13, 2016 Tanya Gazdik

DETROIT — While the title may titillate, the content of Sex With Strangers is as thoughtful as it is provocative.

Olivia (Hallie Bee Bard) and Ethan (Matt Lockwood) both give stellar performances in the production.

Written by Laura Eason, the premise is intriguing. Celebrity sex blogger and memoirist Ethan, 28, tracks down his idol, the gifted but obscure novelist Olivia, 39, at a writer’s retreat. While at first the prim Olivia is repulsed by Ethan’s bravado and narcissism, they find they each crave what the other possesses.

As attraction turns to sex, both must confront the dark side of ambition and the near impossibility of reinventing oneself when the past is only a click away. The play examines social identity and how we define ourselves as artists and humans. Suggested for mature audiences, there are several torrid scenes that dissolve to black.

Almost immediately, the viewer gets a sense that Ethan (whose dastardly side is captured exquisitely by Lockwood) isn’t as he presents himself to Olivia. He is on par with one of the Kardashians, being asked to appear at nightclub openings – hardly the serious writer he would prefer to be, or so he says. Is it his alter ego? Which is his true self: Ethan Strange, the provocateur or Ethan Cane, the earnest writer?

Ethan seems eager to help Olivia with her career, but is it ultimately only to benefit him? His lack of maturity becomes obvious when instead of being happy for her success, he is obviously jealous that his agent is shopping her book to a more “serious” publishing house than his has been offered to.

Directed by Frannie Shepherd-Bates, the set design, lighting and music production are all top-notch. Scenic designer Sarah Pearline effectively turns the small space into both a cozy inn in the first act and a book-lined New York apartment in the second. Lighting designer Cecilia Durbin knows precisely when to take it to black, which keeps the play from going from PG-rated to R or even X.

The sound design, by Julia Garlotte, is particularly good. As the scenes dissolve to black–several times as the actors are tearing off each other’s clothes or falling into bed–a modern music soundtrack fills the small performance space. Costume designer Vince Kelley does a nice job in outfitting the actors in clothes that seemed to reflect their contrasting personalities.

The production stage manager is Kate Peckham and production manager is Sean Redenz. There was a blip in the opening night’s performance in that the audience wasn’t alerted to come back in at the end of the intermission, which resulted in a large number of people coming in after the play had already re-started. Hopefully this will be addressed in future productions because it was distracting.

The three-quarter staging gives a voyeuristic feel to the performance and the audience is practically onstage with the two actors. This can backfire when there are audience members, as there were opening night, who are not respectful of their fellow attendees; instead of enjoying the performance, they were giggling, talking and distracting from the play’s action. Thankfully, these two women did not return after the intermission.

While the undertone of the play is serious, there are light and bright exchanges of dialogue which add some much-needed humor to what otherwise could be a very dark script, given the subject matter. Olivia and Ethan share their love of books, including the smell of old paper. When he later gives her an iPad, telling her he picked that size since it was closest to an actual book, she smells it and remarks that it “smells like the future.”

The characters are equally engaging and this two-hour play does not drag, leaving the audience wanting more, if not a more fairy tale outcome.

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Week of 12/9/2019

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