Laura Eason’s romantic drama “Sex with Strangers” opened Saturday night at the Westport Country Playhouse to a nearly full house. Eason, who was a writer/producer of Netflix House of Cards, has written a 2 character drama that at first appears to be a romantic sit-com, but turns into a more nuanced consideration of the craft of writing.
Directed by Katherine M Carter, the play opens in what the program calls a “bed and breakfast,” but which actually appears to be an elaborate two level ski chalet, designed by Edward T Morris. Olivia (Jessica Love), a 30-something writer and teacher has booked time there to work on her novel, and is surprised when Ethan (Chris Ghaffari) pounds on the door one snowy evening after the B&B proprietor has left. Ethan is a younger 20-something writer who is brash, over confident, and as it turns out a successful writer.
His improbable book, “Sex with Strangers” is a memoir of his having sex with a different woman each week for a year. While we eventually learn that Ethan is actually a skilled writer, this rather schlocky Hefner-esque book has unbelievably been on the NY Times paperback best-seller list for 5 years.
Meanwhile, we learn that Olivia had published one book, to some good reviews but poor sales because of inept marketing of her novel as “chick-lit.” She is currently at work on another, but is quite sensitive about it. Ethan, however, had actually read her first novel, which was recommended to him by a writing teacher they both had worked with.
With this setup, you would think they would fall in love, go to bed and live happily ever after, but this is not quite what Eason has in mind. Since the wireless is down, they of course do go to bed at least 4 times during blackouts punctuating the two acts, but as Olivia gradually regains her confidence with Ethan’s help, they begin to drift apart.
In the second act in Olivia’s Chicago apartment, (another spectacular 2-story set) they spar about their writing and careers and the movie Hollywood is making of Ethan’s trashy book. The story ends as they move on to audience acclaim.
As Olivia, Jessica Love is brittle and protective at first but eventually connects with Ethan at least physically and she slowly grows with Ethan’s encouragement. Chris Ghaffari as Ethan is pretty aggressive and at first pretty obnoxious. However, after he struggles through the production of the movie version of his novel, becomes more thoughtful, but also more distant. Both do an excellent job with their characters and you easily can identify with both of them.
While the playwright, in interviews, has suggested that her play is about young people getting by in the digital internet world, I don’t see it that way. Rather, it seems to me to be about two writers trying to learn their craft and eventually succeeding in different ways. This would have been true even if the wireless connection at the B&B had stayed down for the whole show.
“Sex with Strangers” is a charming, funny play with some really challenging ideas buried in the couples and coupling, and was fun to watch. The show continues through October 14, with performances on Tuesdays at 7 pm, Wednesdays at 2 and 8 pm, Thursdays and Fridays and 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 and 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are available at westportplayhouse.org.