It could be the setup for a Harlequin romance: A beautiful novelist curls on a couch in a bed-and-breakfast in rural Michigan, proofreading a manuscript, completely alone. Heavy snow has deterred other guests, and even the proprietor has been called away on family business. But then: headlights, the thunk of a car door, an insistent knock. Another writer, a younger man, has braved the weather to penetrate her solitude. His boorish male energy repels her ... and yet ... calls out to her.
It's the opening scene, really, of Laura Eason's play "Sex With Strangers," first performed in Chicago in 2011 and now playing at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. And if you think you can guess where things are going, you're right ... and wrong.
Eason, a writer for TV's "House of Cards," has a gift for at once fulfilling and transcending the expectations that she sets up, and under Kimberly Senior's direction, this taut two-person drama is engrossing and surprising, not only in its sexual politics but in its investigation of identity in the digital age.
Olivia (Rebecca Pidgeon) is in her late 30s, about 10 years older than Ethan (Stephen Louis Grush) — just enough years to put them in different generations, at least in terms of how they approach publicity. Olivia's novel came out long ago; mixed reviews and wan reception bruised her so badly that she retreated into a career of teaching. She still writes, but as a "hobbyist," and she would rather die in obscurity than subject herself to "anonymous strangers saying horrible, misspelled things about my work."
Ethan got his book deal by chronicling his sexual conquests in the blog Sex With Strangers, so he has received plenty of outright hateful reviews. Entire websites are dedicated to eviscerating him.
Not only is he unfazed by the cruelty of cyber culture, he's grabbed it by the horns and ridden it to fame, fortune and a movie deal. He has half a million Twitter followers and women lining up to sleep with him for a shot at online infamy. But he's as frustrated as Olivia: He really wants to be a literary novelist, admired for his writing instead of his persona.
In fact, he reveals, he's a fan of Olivia's first novel (she's stunned that he's even read it) and desperate to read her latest manuscript. He considers her obscurity such a "loss to the world" that he offers to use his industry connections and fan base to make her a star.
Given how often this happens to failed novelists, it feels like a fairy-godmother moment, lacking a certain verisimilitude. We just have to go with it and believe that Olivia is an enchantingly brilliant writer and that Ethan is the first to notice. Otherwise, his attraction to her is hard to credit.
Olivia, though pretty, speaks in scrupulously correct English with a patrician accent that sounds even snootier against Ethan's streetwise patois. When he mispronounces the name of the French writer Marguerite Duras, she corrects him with a smirk. But of course we're deep in Harlequin country, where feminine scorn only inflames a man's passions.
Or maybe he puts up with her because the Wi-Fi is down, the final plot device that seals this odd couple into a blissful, temporary bubble for the weekend. Their squabbles frequently take them to an offstage bedroom, the only place they can get any privacy, even in a deserted B&B, because Sibyl Wickersheimer's in-the-round set puts the audience in the living room with the couple.
The design, like the script, comments on the blurring of boundaries between intimate and public lives. Indeed, the first time Olivia and Ethan begin undressing each other, the scene is uncomfortably voyeuristic, but by the third or fourth go, the audience has come to expect their discreet removal to the bedroom before anything untoward happens. The choreography even gets a bit predictable.
By the time the Internet connection comes back on, Ethan has 839 emails. Olivia has seven. And their conversations get a new soundtrack: Ethan's iPhone alerts, beautifully timed by sound designer Cricket S. Myers. It's the death knell of their idyll, but not the end of the play, which moves the romance to Chicago (Olivia's apartment there has the same layout as the B&B) to examine hiding versus oversharing, printed books versus e-books and the permanence of mistakes online and in real life.
The plot twists that keep the pair in orbit despite their far-flung trajectories tend to be melodramatic, a little heavy-handed and rushed, but they are nonetheless gripping. Eason has written characters that, while symbolizing their respective generations, feel layered and unpredictable. Grush's swaggering, blunt, alternately sweet and sinister Ethan keeps us uncertain of his true nature; just when we are sympathizing with Olivia, Pidgeon reveals the icy ambition behind her vulnerability. As power shifts between them, sympathies flip-flop, and it's increasingly difficult to decide who is using whom.
Can love survive the Internet? Can art? Can we? While not offering easy answers, "Sex With Strangers" is a timely and engaging examination of these questions.
"Sex With Strangers"
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10866 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 10.
Info: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com
Running time: 2 hours
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