The Good Theater’s season opener is called Sex With Strangers, but don’t get the wrong kind of excited: the real intercourse behind the title is the one that happens when writers share their intimately crafted extensions of self with an anonymous, indifferent world of readers. Or, as director Steve Underwood more pithily puts it, Sex With Strangers, by Laura Eason (a writer on the Emmy-winning House of Cards) is “a play about that little old industry that begins with ‘P’…PUBLISHING!”
And a fraught, unfair, and often heartbreaking industry it is — particularly when it comes to new generational and technological clashes. That’s what we get, in Eason’s sharp, funny comedic drama, when millennial best-selling author Ethan (Marshall Taylor Thurman) crashes the cozy writing retreat of late-thirty-something novelist Olivia (Amanda Painter). She’s an unknown, whose first novel got the dreaded “mixed reviews.” He’s a celebrity with a gazillion Twitter followers, whose two books began as a blog about the gazillion women he’s slept with. He has fame; she has artistic integrity: Each has something the other wants at least a little of. Naturally, they hook up.
Thurman’s Ethan enters Olivia’s inn in full-blown bro mode, talking fast, taking over the living room, and reeking of entitlement. Thurman, who was delightfully outrageous as a voguing boy-toy last season in Good Theater’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, is again costumed to be obviously, almost aggressively good-looking, his muscles shown off brazenly under his white t-shirt and jeans. Thurman’s Ethan moves, talks, and multi-tasks with the focused speed of high-functioning internet. He leaps over the back of the love seat, asks Olivia directly about her bad reviews and why she isn’t publishing online. He holds his mouth, and his body, like tools he’s confident he knows how to use.
Olivia, of course, is annoyed, incredulous, and sarcastic. But Painter also shows her wistfulness, her yearning to feel her work — and so herself — received. As Olivia opens up to him, Painter does a lovely job illuminating their moments of connection, showing Olivia’s pleasure when they commune, for example, over the smell of old books. In their banter, Olivia keeps up with Ethan’s pointed repartee when she wants to, but sometimes she is slower to respond; we can see her thoughtfulness, her difference, as she processes. I hankered to see a touch more of this contrast in the moments leading up their first sexual encounter, to see a little more of the wise hesitation Olivia surely feels about this arrogant wunderkind, even under the influences of wine and that most powerful aphrodisiac: hearing your own words recited by an admirer.
We see more ambivalence and complexity once the relationship adjourns to her apartment in Chicago (the detailed naturalistic set transforms meticulously from cozy inn to book-lined living room). Painter and Thurman have a dynamic rapport that rises and recedes; they engagingly portray both the couple’s visceral connection and the fundamental disagreements between their generations — about privacy, online versus “real” identity, and self-publishing versus waiting for a legacy press to take your book. Over time and tensions, Painter’s Olivia finds herself hanging in doorways, withholding herself, withdrawing into her own computer screen. And when Ethan falls silent, when his postures fall away, when the Twitter-percussiveness leaves his voice, Thurman makes convincing his insecurity, his youth, and his raw anxiety to be taken seriously as a writer.
Make no mistake, Eason knows writers, their insecurities, their terror of mediocrity. One of the play’s smartest and most brutal moments comes when Ethan, after committing an unthinkable publishing offense against Olivia, asks her what she thought of his prose. He looks vulnerable enough that he might as well be asking her how satisfied he was with a different kind of intimate performance. “I thought it was…” she begins. She pauses, seeking just the right knife, then shrugs, “fine. I thought it was fine.” Ouch.
Latest from Megan Grumbling
- The Theater Project's exposes the beams in Lisa D'Amour's 'Detroit'
- Is it all just a game? — USM's 'Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom' peers into a possible future
- Street Theater — Snowlion's 'Anything Helps God Bless' reckons with homelessness in Portland
- Born for a Storm — Mad Horse's 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson' sends up populist rage
- Tracey Conyer Lee summons Billie Holiday in marvelous one-woman show 'Lady Day'