Sex with Strangers – Don’t Hurt Yourself
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
People (myself included, of course) enter into relationships with the amusing, alarming fantasy of control. This time, we won’t let someone else get the upper hand, show our ugly too fast, raise our voices, get jealous, lose perspective. This is impossible, obviously, because we’re all jittery weirdos one odd Facebook message away from completely blowing it. No wonder we’re anxious skin bags. Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers, up right now at Fells Point Corner Theatre, understands this anxiety, and provides one fucking good reason for it: in this age of internet performative personality, do you know? Do you know who you’re dating, fucking, do you know who you are? Is your digital persona as much “you” as your meat space one? Or [shudder] more so? And, if that’s the case, are we cleaved people, hooking up with other cleaved people, creating some sort of trippy, moist, multi-headed chimera? MAKES YOU THINK.
Here, the skin bags in question are Olivia (Kahtryn Daniels) and Ethan (Matthew Lindsay Payne). She’s an achingly serious writer of almost forty, that magical time in a woman’s life where she morphs into cultural invisibility, and, worse, irrelevancy (seriously, I’m thirty-five, and some of my friends are starting to talk to me as if I’m Grandmother Willow). Ethan is a hot-shot blogger playing, tellingly, just a skosh younger than he actually is, as if the realization is juuuust starting to creep in that his douchebag act might start to get less cute in the frighteningly near future. His stupid blog about questionably boning a different woman a week has, in some unholy fashion, evolved into a bestselling book. These two, through a series of Circumstances, get snowed in as the only guests at a bed and breakfast. The Wi-Fi is out, so they start to, you know, chat. Fucking Ethan makes Olivia feel young. Fucking Olivia makes Ethan feel smart. This is probably more a manifestation about what they hate about themselves than it is about seeking real connection, but so what? Right?
Eventually, though, feeling insecure and trying to keep Olivia’s attention, Ethan starts to show off. He mentions that he can use his literary influence to help her sell her work on the internet, and, against her better judgement, her ears perk up. Olivia’s been treated roughly by an industry that doesn’t value her. So, when Ethan suggests a potential second chance, she can’t help but be intrigued. Feelings are caught, even as Olivia bites her lip, slamming her laptop shut to block out the disgusting creature Ethan is online (and, you know, sometimes in person, also). When the eventual confrontation happens, and keeps happening, almost in slow motion, he insists that he’s different, that’s not him, he’s present, with her, in this room right now. Olivia doesn’t know if this is true or not, and she can’t quite face the implications, so she compartmentalizes like a champ. This kicks off a series of unhealthy power shifts that spell an inevitable mess and a pretty shocking betrayal, which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling.
Payne and Daniels are fascinating to watch. Even when the beats don’t quite land, the two of them seem to be clicking to some shared compass. Daniels is magnetic. Her Olivia is vulnerable, but not traumatized, needy but complete, confused, yet deeply resolute. This is tricky business, and she mostly navigates it with stunning deftness. It’s a performance that comes, in places, as close as I’ve seen to the most difficult thing to pull off: making me believe that I’m watching a real person. Payne’s character lacks the same kind of center, but he finds moments of shocking authenticity, like a chilling code-switching scene as Ethan speaks to his agent on the phone, seemingly out of Olivia’s hearing. Payne doesn’t succumb to the temptation to make the character a Jekyll and Hyde cartoon, but he does understand the danger inherent in an person who has become unmoored in terms of identity. His reactions are also great: watch him play Ethan hearing the line “I have seen it at the airport.”
Patrick Gorirossi, here directing, brings a critical eye to this material that I am incredibly grateful for. He pushes past overt sentimentality to occasionally, yes, brutal, truth. Goriroissi is never not thoughtful, and he adds layers that are inspired (the soundtrack, for instance, is an Easter egg that, if you listen, spells out his whole intention). There’s also an audio collage based on a poem by Andrea Gibson, a radical LGBTQ activist, which contextualizes some of this, for me, beyond “LOL, straight people, amiright?” Sex and the Cityish banality and expands it to include all those who feel, queering it, in a sense. I do wish that the show was more confident, had gelled more firmly, some of the action seems uncertain when it should be absolutely pointed, which leads me to believe the Gorirossi needs to focus. For instance, when Olivia, frustrated, yells: “Why can’t I be ambitious?,” it should read as a primal scream, the end point of decades of oppressed instincts. But Daniels doesn’t stick it, and it comes out as more of a whine. And Payne seems occasionally distracted, in his head, which can come off non-genuine at the exact wrong times. The sex scenes, however, are spot-on, awkward, consensual, nervous, fun (courtesy of Intimacy Choreographer Emily Sucher). And I quite like the set (David Shoemaker) which is streamlined and believable, but seems to recede as the play goes on, leaving the characters floating on an odd sort of neutral plane. Because wherever you go, there you are.
THE BOTTOM LINE: FPCT’s Sex with Strangers goes further than the material may suggest. Beyond a simple boygirl relationship going sour, direction by Patrick Gorirossi and performance from Kathryn Daniels and Matthew Lindsay Payne seeks larger truths about power, ego, and identity as the edge of the knife. In other hands, I might not have responded, but here, I’m intrigued. Bumpy in places, but still, a cut above. See it.
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