The sex is mostly talk, but the dialogue is great

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(c) Michael Brosilow

Stephen Louis Grush plays Ethan and Sally Murphy is Olivia in "Sex With Strangers."

Review: “Sex With Strangers,” by Laura Eason
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago

“Sex With Strangers” has a good deal to do with sex, or at least talk about sex, but a good deal more to do with other enthusiasms like money, fame, manipulation and control.

Sally Murphy and Stephen Louis Grush give smart, edgy, laugh-out-loud performances in playwright Laura Eason’s two-hander about a pair of writers whose wildly different paths just happen to lead to the same isolated, snowbound bed-and-breakfast in Michigan.

Murphy plays Olivia, an aspiring Chicago novelist who’s had one book published and is still reeling from the critics’ acid reception. Now she’s holed up in this remote B&B to put the final touches on a second effort, though she may never risk actually allowing anyone to read it.

Out of the stormy night and into Olivia’s cozy retreat blows Grush’s Ethan, who’s first of all aghast to discover that the Internet is inaccessible, secondly the brash author of a crazily popular blog detailing a long string of sexual conquests and thirdly a great admirer of Olivia’s failed book. Which he has read twice. And he rarely reads anything twice.

Ethan is 24 going on 14, the master of a limited but direct lexicon in which every third word begins with f. Younger than Olivia, fluent in the social media barely on her radar, he exudes all the confidence she lacks. She also can’t match the gallery of tattoos that ornament his arms and body. Ethan is a supercharged, and it isn’t long before he plainly suggests that, hey, since he’s here and she’s here and it’s really cold out there, maybe…

The playwright’s banter between this odd couple is brisk, sharp and just enough off-kilter to keep the game light, even as Olivia grapples with Ethan’s graphic account of his rise to fame and considerable fortune as a tell-all Don Juan.

Olivia is no prude. She’s been around, too. And theoretically, sure, she could imagine sex with a total stranger. No strings, no relationship. But that’s just theoretical.

And so, to Olivia’s great surprise, the dance begins. It swirls into a heady, passionate waltz that ends with clothing and bodies all rearranged – and another proposition.

The table is now set for the real meat of “Sex With Strangers.” Ethan’s good opinion of Olivia’s craft is borne out in spades and he finds himself slipping into an unexpected role, one as awkward as it is unfamiliar.

Laura Eason, the author of more than 15 plays, is a skilled crafter of dialogue with a keen sense of emotional curve, conversational rhythm and the funny stuff that springs from impulsive reaction to a shocking idea. Her safely nestled Olivia, licking the wounds of rejection, is an immediately appealing character through whose eyes we witness this bizarre encounter.

If the chance meeting of Olivia and Ethan stretches plausibility, turning “Sex With Strangers” toward sitcom, the play still sparks enough anticipation and sustains enough wry humor to hold our interest. Whether it really goes anywhere is another question.

Eason’s dramatic structure, two acts built of neatly framed vignettes that constantly fade to black, begins to feel more facile than energizing. And while its opposites-attract charm carries “Sex With Strangers” a long way, one wishes for a bigger payoff, a final proposition as daring as Ethan might have put in his blog.           

Through May 15. www.steppenwolf.org. Call (312) 335-1650.                       

     

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Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.