How far would you go to achieve success?
Lead Cast: Anna Gunn (Olivia), Billy Magnussen (Ethan)
In a Nutshell: Can anyone truly know another person? That’s the key issue in this excellent two-hander by playwright Laura Eason. In fact, the play’s first line is, “Who are you?” While the characters’ initial encounter does lead to the activity described in the play’s title, even after they develop a relationship, they essentially remain strangers.
What’s It All About? Olivia and Ethan are both writers. She is a serious author who is still nursing the wounds from her failed novel years before. As she nears 40, Olivia continues to write, but remains paralyzed by her fear of rejection. She shows her work to no one and has taken a job teaching. In contrast, Ethan, around 10 years her junior, is a confident, charming Internet/social media savvy guy whose crass “Sex with Strangers” series of books (based on his true life exploits of bedding a different woman every day for a year) are wildly successful. He has thousands of Twitter followers and has signed a lucrative movie deal based on his work.
The two strangers meet at a bed and breakfast in rural Michigan where she has holed up to write. He arrives, also to write, during a snowstorm. Conveniently, the owner is away and there are no other guests. Although Ethan’s character is a self-described “a-hole,” it soon becomes evident that there is a lot more to this handsome dude-type guy than either Olivia or the audience suspects. It turns out they have a friend in common, a Pulitzer-winning author who has sent Ethan to the inn so that he can finish his screenplay. We discover that Ethan is a lot smarter than his “Sex with Strangers” persona. He has read Olivia’s book and encourages her not to give up. He also shares that he has ambitions to move beyond his pop culture success and to be accepted as a legitimate author.
Food for Thought: In addition to the theme of the basic unknowability of another person, Sex with Strangers explores the often blurry line between accepting another person’s help and exploiting that person for one’s own benefit. Because of his contacts and knowledge of social media, Ethan has the ability to expose Olivia’s work to a huge new audience. He convinces her to put her failed novel on the Internet under a pseudonym. He also reads her new work (defying her wishes) and sets her up with his agent. Much to her surprise, Olivia finds herself, at 40, winning the critical acclaim and success that has eluded her in the past. Ethan asks her to turn down a book deal with a venerable publishing house and to instead let him digitally publish her work on his new website to help him establish a reputation apart from his bad boy success. After all, doesn’t she owe him? If not for him, she would still be toiling away in obscurity.
The situation reminds me of the Jack White song “Icky Thump,” which asks: “Who’s using who? What should we do? Well you can’t be a pimp and a prostitute too.” Just who is using who? I won’t give away more of the plot. Let’s just say that the characters are complex and do not act in stock, expected ways. You and your theatre-going companion(s) can ponder the question over an after theatre cocktail.
The Performances: Both actors are excellent and do a terrific job portraying the complexities of their characters and landing the playwright’s comic and dramatic scenes. Fans of the hit TV show “Breaking Bad” will recognize Anna Gunn from her Emmy-winning role as Walter White’s wife Skyler. Theatre fans know Billy Magnussen from his hilarious, Tony-nominated turn as the boy toy Spike in 2013’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Magnussen turns in an especially fine performance here, masterfully showing us the sensitive, intelligent man underneath the swagger and 6-pack abs. And Gunn, so downtrodden and guarded when we initially meet her character, skillfully shows Olivia’s evolution into the ambitious, confident writer she always dreamed of becoming.
Should You Go? Yes, but don’t wait too long: as of this writing, the show runs only through August 31. Also keep in mind, this show is strictly for adults. (After all, the word “sex” is in the title). If you are at all prudish about watching simulated (though not explicit) sex on stage, choose another show.
More About the Cast and Director: Look for Gunn this coming fall starring as Ellie Miller in the series “Gracepoint” on Fox. Magnussen just wrapped the film version of “Into the Woods,” starring as Rapunzel’s Prince, due out this Christmas. TV watchers will recognize director David Schwimmer’s name: although he is best known for his Emmy-nominated turn as Ross on the hit show “Friends,” he also boasts an impressive résumé as a theatre actor and director.
Ticket Info: Theatre lovers under 30 can take advantage of 2nd Stage’s “30 Under 30” program by purchasing $30 tix at the theatre. ID is required. For the rest of us, discount tickets (50% off) are available at the TKTS Times Square ticket booth.