Saturday, September 19, 2015

Sex with Strangers reviewed by Danielle Wood

Imagine the person you lost your virginity with ended up being not the one you married, but the one with whom you have an ongoing, if intermittent, affair – sometimes exhilarating, sometimes disappointing. Well, that’s how it is for me and the theatre.
I’m talking about real theatre, live theatre, the sort that I fell in love with as a teenager, back in that phase of life when too much was never enough. Although we’ve drifted apart, the theatre and me, still there are moments when we reconnect. We sometimes see each other here in Hobart, but not as often as I’d like. Mostly it’s when I’m off the leash and travelling that I make the effort to get in touch. Sometimes, I worry that we’ve permanently lost the magic, but then I’ll see a play good enough to set off a bunch of well-rehearsed chemical reactions in the brain and there it is: love all over again.
I’m guessing no-one at the Tasmanian Theatre Company knew that when they asked me along to their show Sex With Strangers, and to write something about it, the invitation was, for me, a little like getting a phone call from an old flame.
So, Sex with Strangers. The title alone is a come-on, and it’s worked for Ethan (Samuel Johnson), who’s made the New York Times bestseller list with a blog-turned-book that chronicles the outcome of his boast that for a whole year he could, each week, pick up a girl in a bar and get her to have sex with him. Ethan’s now rich and successful, with a powerful internet reach. But his dirty secret is that even he holds the vehicle of his success in contempt, and would rather be a literary novelist, like Olivia (Tottie Goldsmith).
The two come together (literally) in a rural writing retreat, far from the madding web. Olivia, older than Ethan, has been burned by the mixed reception of her first novel quite a number of years earlier. She’s spent a small fortune on therapy that’s supposed to help her not care about responses to her closely-guarded, new, novel. Her dirty secret? She craves acknowledgement, success and status.

Johnson and Goldsmith have a freshly-lit powder keg of onstage chemistry; their performances, and Laura Eason’s fantastic script, make us believe that the unlikely pair of Olivia and Ethan could indeed become lovers. Goldsmith’s Olivia has a surface of gravitas and superiority – she quite reasonably thinks Ethan is ‘a dick’. But barely beneath the skin is her incapacity to resist his genuine admiration for her writing or the tempting idea that he could deliver to her the audience she’s always craved. Johnson’s Ethan is exactly the sort of appealingly aggravating arsehole that a woman might love/hate even more just for being so irresistible.

This play has been billed as an exploration of the divide between Gen Y (Ethan, with his constant connectivity and anti-establishment chutzpah) and Gen X (Olivia, with her lingering regard both for privacy and for traditional markers of status). Those things are there, in Sex with Strangers, but they weren’t the most interesting things, for me. Director Lucy Freeman has teased all the nuances out of this play, leaving the audience bubbling with questions. Is it love when we are drawn to people who can supplement our lack? Or is the attraction only the mask for a desire to take those missing qualities for ourselves? Does announcing yourself to be an arsehole qualify you for a licence to be one? Can you be one person, and play another? Olivia and Ethan’s relationship is a fascinating, shifting web of sexual attraction, debt, gratitude and esteem. In this production, it’s framed by a luxurious, flexible set design and backed up by a seductive soundscape. Watch for the snowflakes – beautiful (sigh).
I’ve just got two little quibbles. One is that I wish the North American accents hadn’t been necessary, which it must have been decided that they were, in order to make sense of the script’s cultural, geographical and literary references. Not that the accents were terrible or especially intrusive, it’s just that I would have loved to hear Goldsmith and Johnson tell this story in their own voices. I suppose my wish might come true in an alternate reality, in which Laura Eason lives in Brisbane and writes this play in Australian.
The other quibble is with the script itself, and its refusal to show us more than the most meagre glimpse of the books encircled by this drama: Ethan’s Sex with Strangers (and its sequel) and Olivia’s two literary novels. It’s true that all we officially need to understand is that Olivia’s work is literary, Ethan’s crassly commercial. And yes, I get that we, the audience, have been invited to fill in the gaps from our own experience of these categories. Nevertheless, I wanted to click the ‘LOOK INSIDE’ tab and read a few sentences from each of the books, for myself.
But this is trivia. It was lovely to see my old flame, the beautifully produced live theatre show, looking so ravishing. I enjoyed the opportunity to admire the focus, emotion and stamina of an intense two-hander. I loved the moments of laughter, the moments of breathing shallowly through the suspense, and the moments of wry recognition.
Sex with Strangers is on at the Peacock Theatre with shows tomorrow night, Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Saturday night. Really, you should go. If for no other reason than to admire how beautiful is Tottie Smith. Truly, the Newton-John-esque cheekbones alone (yes, she’s the niece of that other Olivia) are worth the ticket price. Go.

Thanks Danielle Wood for agreeing to share this wonderful review via WriteResponse. We appreciate your support.

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