"Sex With Strangers" moves in workmanlike fashion across Capital Rep's stage

ALBANY, N.Y. — Olivia and Ethan, the two characters in Laura Eason's provocatively titled "Sex With Strangers," meet if not cute then certainly conveniently.

It's a snowbound b&b for writers in Michigan to which Olivia (Jenny Strassburg in Capital Repertory Theatre's competently performed, workmanlike production) has come to complete work on her new manuscript — her first major effort since her first published novel, years earlier, fell short of expectations. There is only one other guest — the late-arriving Ethan (Ben Williamson), a self-described assinine figure who has had two megabestsellers based on his popular podcast, Sex With Strangers, in which he graphically chronicles his sexual exploits with eager and willing young women he meets in bars.

As it turns out, it is no coincidence that Ethan has turned up. He's been an admirer of Olivia's writing, her first novel, and they have a literary friend and mentor in common.

In an effort to prove he is not the shallow popular hormone-driven cult figure his celebrity would indicate, Ethan is working on a serious novel. He also wants to create an app which would allow users to access new literary work by up-and-coming writers or writers who have some kind of track record, are working on new material and want to gain a readership that is instant and in excess of the readership available through conventional publishing.

With a March snowstorm raging outside and no one else around, what else is there for Olivia and Ethan to do than to plunge into wild, exuberant sex, coming up for air long enough to talk about literature, fame, the nature of success, art versus commerce, credibility, celebrity.

Ethan also is off to Hollywood where he has written the screenplay for the movie being made from his books and to consult on casting.

Over the course of "Sex With Strangers" — which moves from Michigan to Olivia's Chicago apartment and unfolds in a series of scenes that play out over three weeks in summer and fall and then a year and a half later — Olivia and Ethan engage in a sexually charged relationship that also has resonances in their professional lives. Lies, betrayal, self-interest, ambition, questions of integrity become inextricably bound until it all goes up in smoke in a scandal that will have consequences for them both. Just how consequential is a matter for an unexpected encounter between the two a year and a half later that raises more than one tantalizing question as the play ends.

In a sense, "Sex With Strangers" is about coming of age, finding and asserting individuality and authenticity in the era of the Internet.

As Ethan, Williamson never quite escapes the boobish, assinine mode with which Ethan defines himself. While Eason has cleverly constructed her play to allow sympathies to shift back and forth between Olivia and Ethan, Williamson doesn't always make it easy.

Strassburg has the more layered role of the two and she manages to find currents in Olivia that Williamson is unable to find in Ethan.

At best, this is a surface run through a play that lives beneath that surface.

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212


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