HARTFORD, CONN. — Ethan and Olivia, the two characters in Laura Eason's densely packed play, "Sex With Strangers" — which is being given a robustly played, smoothly crafted production at TheaterWorks — do not meet cute.
Olivia Lago (Courtney Rackley, who wears this role comfortably and convincingly) is a teacher in her mid-to upper 30s whose first novel fell short of expectations, due to mixed reviews and a misguided marketing plan by her publishers who simply didn't get her work.
"My publisher thought jumping on the "chick-lit" bandwagon was a good idea," Olivia says at one point. "But the people who would have liked it didn't buy it because of what they thought it was. And the people who did buy it hated it because it wasn't what they expected. It was a disaster."
Her attempt at a follow-up was a bigger disaster.
Her isolation — physical and psychological — is broken by the arrival of a brash, gregarious young man roughly 10 years Olivia's junior — Ethan Kane (a frequently posturing, too-eager-to-convince Patrick Ball), whose book, "Sex With Strangers" — based on his blog journal chronicling his sexual exploits with women, strangers, he meets at bars or social gatherings — and its follow-up spent five years on the New York Times non-fiction best seller list. "We call the book 'an internet memoir based on the intoxicated recollections of a certifiable a-----e,'" he explains to Olivia. Casting is about to begin in Hollywood for the film version of his book. He's come to the b&b, ostensibly, to finish his screenplay. But, as it turns out, his arrival at the b&b on the same weekend Olivia is there is no happenstance.
It comes as no surprise that by the end of the first scene, Olivia and Ethan are ripping off each other's clothes. But as sexually charged and intense as their relationship becomes over the course of the play, what develops is, in fact, far more complex and layered.
Ethan and Olivia are each looking for respect, recognition, confirmation of who they are as artists. Ethan, it turns out, also is working in a novel, a serious novel that is the polar opposite of the graphic, sexxy franchise that has won him millions of followers. His dilemma, it turns out, is the same as Olivia's. It's a book of considerable literary merit, written with honesty, skill and from the soul, but it will disappoint his followers because it is not what they have come to expect from him and the readers who would appreciate the book won't go near it because of the "Sex With Strangers" books.
Ethan also wants to launch a literary app that will carry respectable work by serious, fresh literary voices, as well as work by established, respected writers.
There is a lot on Eason's plate — issues of trust and betrayal; assumptions and expectations; the choices people make in their personal and professional lives and the consequences of those choices for the people around us in our personal and professional lives; permanence and impermanence; the line between art and life; privacy and how much of one's self one is willing to expose, give over to others publicly in the arena of fame and celebrity and privately within the most intimate relationship.
Director Rob Ruggiero and his cast come at Eason's play with everything they've got but for all that effort, there is a nagging sense of something missing. The fault here may lie more with Eason than with the generally persuasive Rackley, a less consistently authentic Ball or Ruggiero. To her credit, Eason does not take "Sex With Strangers" down paths one might expect. She plays, subtly, with our own assumptions about who her characters, especially Ethan, truly are. And yet, for all that, for all that Eason does put Olivia and Ethan through, particularly in the second act, their respective journeys feel vaguely charted and insubstantial. As "Sex With Strangers" ends, with a scene taking place a year and a half later, Eason brings Olivia to a point at which she faces yet another crucial choice in her life. On the surface, the question at this point is "What?" The real question is "Why?"
What: "Sex With Strangers" by Laura Eason. Directed by Rob Ruggiero
With: Courtney Rackley, Patrick Ball
Designers: Brian Prather, sets; Amy Clark, costumes; John Lasiter, lighting; Fitz Patton, sound
Where: TheaterWorks, City Arts on Pearl, 233 Pearl St., Hartford, Conn.
When: Through April 17. Evenings — Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30; Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Saturday and Sunday at 2:30
Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes
Tickets: $65-$40 (senior and student rates available)
How: (860) 527-7838; theaterworkshartford.org