THEATER REVIEW: In Sex with Strangers at PTC, Lust and Literature Are Odd Bedfellows

Sex With Strangers photo3 (1)

Kyle Coffman and Joanna Rhinehart in Sex with Strangers at PTC. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

One look at the Philadelphia Theatre Company stage set — a handsomely appointed lodge, complete with a roaring fire on a snowy winter night — and I thought, “well, this is either going to be horror story or a bodice ripper.”

Sex with Strangers is not really either, though more the latter than the former (that title is a bit of a give-away). As for what it actually is?… that’s harder to answer.

As the play begins, Olivia Lago, a 40-ish college writing teacher, sits alone. She plans to spend her spring break quietly, reading and thinking. But it’s not to be — moments later, Ethan Kane, a brash young man, bangs on the door — he’s missed the afternoon check-in time. Olivia lets him in. (By my count, that’s three implausibilities in the first five minutes, with more to come.)

Olivia and Ethan are quickly attracted to each other, despite their very different life stages. (She is mature, successful, contemplative — he can’t function without an internet connection, and calls people “dude.”) But it’s not that simple. Olivia isn’t just a teacher — she’s a novelist who hasn’t found an audience. Ethan, despite his superficial, er, dude-iness, is a hugely successful memoirist and rising internet publisher. You can probably figure out that what follows is a collage of personal and professional hook-ups.

So, yes — there is some sex with strangers in Sex with Strangers. There’s also a lot of what’s meant to be sophisticated literary banter, including frequent name dropping: Tolstoy, Marguerite Duras, Italo Calvino, Junot Diaz. (Diaz has, we’re told, given Ethan the rights to publish his new story online online – another implausibility, surely.) An additional plot thread involves Olivia’s ambivalence and even outrage at the cavalier way Ethan describes his many young female partners in his writing. She’s attracted to him sexually, and hopes he can help her career, while on a more rational level, she’s repelled.

All of this suggests that playwright Laura Eason is after something rather serious in Sex with Strangers, and listening to the dialogue, I could infer some of it — the thin line separating allure and danger, the compromises we make to advance our careers and dreams, and so on.

But as seen at PTC, in director David Saint’s sleek but largely subtext-free production, there’s a meet-cute glibness incompatible with weighty themes. Actress Joanna Rhinehart is a physically lovely Olivia, but she remains an unconvincing character. Kyle Coffman (Ethan) is better – he, too, is very attractive, and has a beguiling yet creepy boyishness. Ultimately, both actors succumb to the general tone of entertainment over substance.

Sex with Strangers, simultaneously overwrought and undercooked, is at its most credibility-straining when dealing with literary themes — frankly, it’s nearly impossible to believe either Olivia or Ethan are authors of distinction.

Note to Junot Diaz — you can do better.

Sex with Strangers runs through May 8. For more information, visit the Philadelphia Theatre Company website.

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