Theater Review: Sex With Strangers Has a Sitcom Touch, But a Good One

Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen in Sex With Strangers. Photo: Joan Marcus

If you were trying to devise a light comedy for overheated August audiences (and theaters closing out their subscription seasons) you might do worse than a two-hander with a clickbait title and a chilly setting. Perhaps you’d have the curtain rise on an inn in Michigan as a March snowstorm casts cool blue light on a woman drinking a big glass of red wine while ice drips loudly off the eaves outside. Anyway, that’s what Laura Eason has done in Sex With Strangers, at Second Stage, making it seem, but only for the first few minutes, like part of the New York theater world’s late-summer ritual of dumping inventory too insubstantial for the rest of the year. For there is sexy Olivia, curled up in her stretchy separates, proofing the manuscript of her novel, for god’s sake. Is this a play or a travel ad at the back of The New York Review of Books?

As it turns out, it’s a play, and a good one, cleverly flying just under the radar of “importance.” Which is also what the fortyish Olivia (Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn) is doing. After her first novel was “misunderstood” — i.e., mostly ignored — when it was published 15 years earlier, she gradually withdrew into the less ambitious life of a teacher, writing only as a “hobbyist,” stringing words together for her pleasure alone. Into that self-imposed literary cloister, a bit too obviously, bursts the requisite bad boy, banging at the inn’s door and several other points of entry. Though only eleven years Olivia’s junior, Ethan Kane appears to be from a different universe entirely, one in which smartphones and iPads are permanent appendages and sex requires no more deep thought or delicacy than a game of Angry Birds. Needless to say, Ethan (Billy Magnussen) is a Major Hunk; if books no longer have a physical form, this best-selling brah sure does.

You may detect a certain amount of sitcom in the setup — and in the direction, by David Schwimmer of Friends fame. And it’s definitely there in the way Eason’s lines hit their marks so unerringly

OLIVIA: I don’t want to subject myself to a bunch of anonymous strangers saying horrible, misspelled things about my work. I don’t know how you deal with that.
: Well, I’m an egomaniac.

But television savvy — Eason writes for House of Cards — can no longer be hurled as an insult onstage. Indeed, Sex With Strangers has a lot more on its mind than many a downtown gut-wrencher. In its upper-middlebrow way it engages useful and current questions about the fate of publishing (the play namechecks everything from Smashwords to Jeffrey Eugenides), the limits of public transparency, and the meaning of intimacy in a hook-up culture. (Ethan’s success springs from two collections of misogynistic blog posts about women he’s slept with.) And though it doesn’t take long to perceive that the positions of the two characters, starting from opposite sides on all of these issues, will eventually cross in the middle, the actors, under Schwimmer’s sensitive direction, are convincing as people, not just platforms. Gunn has the tough job of making Olivia’s conservative (and familiar) resistance feel active; it’s an underwritten role but she’s terrific. You can feel the electricity of her awakening to Ethan’s offers of redemption: through sex, yes, but also through the internet.

Magnussen, who as Spike in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike got good practice embodying immodest boytoyism, has the opposite challenge with Ethan, making this unbridled, appetitive Peter Pan seem human enough to matter to the likes of Olivia. And though he’s an unqualified and hilarious success, that success unbalances the play a bit, pushing it past its genre boundaries into Bad Boyfriend territory. I spent way too much time wondering if Ethan would eventually be revealed as a liar or a sex maniac or an invention of Neil LaBute, with a wager riding on his seduction of Olivia. (We quickly learn that it is no accident he has arrived at the inn just when she is alone there.) And while this is distracting, making some of the literary conversation seem dull by comparison, it is also exciting, in much the way an Ethan would be to an Olivia, with his radical shamelessness:

OLIVIA: Why should I trust you?
: You probably shouldn’t.
: You seem like you might be an asshole.
: I’m not saying I’m not an asshole. I pretty much am an asshole. I’m just saying I won’t be an asshole to you.

The fascinating question is: If he admits to being an asshole, is he no longer one? Or is he more of one? In the age of overshare, Eason seems to suggest, it becomes difficult to tell the difference between Twitter and psychopathology.

I wish the play could get to these nifty ideas through subtler mechanics; it’s the kind of story in which Olivia’s work must be accepted as brilliant for the plot to turn. (“You can’t keep this from the world,” Ethan insists.) Even less convincingly, Eason asks us to believe that Ethan himself, who thinks in bursts of 140 characters, is able to write something Olivia can honestly describe as “poetic” and “haunting.” (His abs are poetic and haunting, I grant you, but his prose?) In attempting this unlikely turn, and a double-axel plot twist near the end, Eason seems to have followed the same questionable (or at any rate double-edged) advice an agent gives Olivia about making her manuscript more conventional and thus salable. And so, after an insistently anti-chick-lit setup, the play itself becomes a bit deranged by the golden id-puppy set loose within its decorous confines. Unfortunately, Schwimmer, so good with the actors and the laughs, exacerbates instead of mitigates this problem by lingering repeatedly and at great length on the lovemaking. The script may say (four times) that “sex is imminent,” but as staged, it’s less imminent than immanent.

Still, it’s hot — or should I say cool? In any case, it’s only a slight criticism of Sex With Strangers to say that it’s great summer entertainment.

Sex With Strangers is at Second Stage Theatre through August 24.

Theater Review: Sex With Strangers