Some years ago, when the partisan, caustic, and confrontational Bill O’Reilly was Fox Television’s most highly rated commentator, he was interviewed by a correspondent from another network. During the exchange, he averred that his real personality, known to friends and neighbors, was much different than his celebrity persona. He proudly claimed to be a mild-mannered, accommodating friend and family man. What amounts to his plea for respect raises two questions. Which is the real character, or do both realizations deserve recognition as life forces? Also, what is the relative importance of the purported private personage who influences tens of people to the public personage who influences millions?
Laura Eason’s “Sex With Strangers” explores the concept of public versus private behavior and much more. At first, it seems that this may simply be an amusing story, but the longer it plays, the deeper it gets, exposing many sometimes provocative layers, peppered with humor and conflict. San Jose Stage presents a sensationally acted and directed production of this powerhouse two hander.
How many English teachers are frustrated authors hoping to write the great American novel? Olivia aspires to just that, and in fact, she’s taken one step in the right direction having published a novel that received many positive reviews, but paltry sales revenues. One winter break, she sequesters herself alone in a cottage rented out by a friend. Unexpectedly, another guest arrives during a snowstorm. It turns out that the younger Ethan is not only a writer as well, but surprisingly, he has read her book. Shortly, she finds that his joining her in this isolation was no accident.
Allison F. Rich exquisitely captures the archetype that Olivia represents. She subsumes her urges beneath a mantle of intellectual superiority, cocooning herself with tomes from the likes of Tolstoy and Marguerite Duras while sipping a glass of wine. But as she minces about pigeon-toed, her reserve and seeming serenity belie deep-seated insecurities about fear of failure. Having lost at love and unable to endure the occasional negative reviews that her book received, she has withdrawn into a satisficing, defensive existence.
Ethan blasts into her scene like a blue norther, and Matthew Kropschot perfectly explodes into Ethan’s uninhibited and fearless personality. He is chalk to Olivia’s cheese. He meets her curtness, suspicion, and protectiveness with audaciousness, soon asking her for a glass of wine and later sex. His swaggering effusiveness towers over her, and he represents virtually the opposite of everything that she values, breaking all rules of propriety from the outset.
Although he contrived this rendezvous because he respected her writing, it was his books that spent several years on the New York Times best seller list. The hitch is that they were books about his sexual conquests with virtual strangers, which like his personality, repels Olivia. But she realizes that he is intelligent. Upon his establishing some credibility, he gives her encouragement and admiringly quotes from her book. Olivia’s social and sexual repression break loose. She soon finds herself attracted to the side of him that she experiences, but still wonders about the callous, misogynistic person in the exploits of his books.
As their relationship evolves, the question of Ethan’s motivation arises as well. Here is a man in his late 20s with a massive libido and an impressive history of variety seeking in bedding partners. Why, all of a sudden, is he so interested in an older woman more comfortable in a library than a bar? Is he really so taken with her intellect and her writing that he can quiet his hormonal hunt? Can he be using her, and if so, for what? Although he is starting an app to help less-known authors reach their audience, how big a prize catch would a virtual unknown, part-time writer with one book published represent? Does he see romance with Olivia as a step toward respectability?
The play covers quite a bit of territory, built in part around the impact of the Internet. At a generic level, it alludes to changes wrought in personal behavior and privacy. More specifically, we see the effect on the publishing industry of electronic media, which has decimated the print world. Ever the resistant traditionalist, Olivia loves the look and feel and even the smell of a real book. Ethan is an unsentimental man of the moment.
Ultimately, clashes will occur. Olivia, who is strongly guided by moral principles, will be asked to compromise and reciprocate for benefits that she receives. But what makes her situation particularly prickly is that there are numerous ways that a debt can be repaid, and the payback expected is in a currency most dear to her.
The characters face numerous conundrums and must deal with significant questions. Who are we – really? Do we always apply the same moral rules to ourselves that we place on others? Are we all willing to compromise our principles, but it’s only a matter of price? How significantly can or do peoples’ personalities really change? Can many ethical missteps from youth simply be ascribed to growing up?
“Sex With Strangers” deals with these issues and more. The playwright confronts these matters in a riveting narrative that totally engages. It is hard to imagine two actors providing more dazzling performances than Allison F. Rich and Matthew Kropschot, and Director Johnny Moreno deserves recognition for maintaining the pace throughout. In case it’s not clear, this reviewer liked the play – a lot.
“Sex With Strangers” is written by Laura Eason, produced by San Jose Stage, and plays in its theater at 490 South First Street, San Jose, CA through October 30, 2022.