In this day and age, how much can we trust someone’s online life to mirror reality? Can May/December romances work? And can the tech-savvy co-exist with someone who’s practically a Luddite? These are just a few of the themes at play in “Sex With Strangers, a two-hander that opens the 40th anniversary season at the San Jose Stage Company after some shuffling (“The Play That Goes Wrong” was to have opened their season – now the season will close with it). Laura Eason’s script tells the story of forty-something college professor and unsuccessful writer Olivia (skillfully played by Allison F. Rich) and hunky Twitter/blogger/successful twenty-something author Ethan (played by Matthew Krupschot) – whose worlds collide when a snowstorm traps them alone together at a Michigan bed and breakfast. At first it’s like oil meeting water: She’s old school, he’s very today. She has no online presence or book sales, his blog was the basis for his successful book, currently being made into a movie (called…get this…”Sex With Strangers”) – you get the picture. Soon, this unlikely duo will end up…shall we say…pounding the percales, because – well…it’s in the title.
Rich does well in the role of the less-than-confident Olivia. She’s delightfully awkward at first, then warms into lovely sensuality as well as other subtle and less subtle notes. Krupschot is less believable in his role as Ethan. When Ethan turns away from Olivia and plays out toward the audience, there’s just something that doesn’t ring true. I could see that rather than Ethan looking away from Olivia, it appeared that it was Matthew that was looking at the audience.
What doesn’t quite gel is the chemistry between the two characters, which to me is one of the faults of Eason’s script. These people are thrown in together by circumstance, start a relationship that works (kind of, maybe), then Olivia is shocked when overhearing a phone conversation between Ethan and his manage. In the next scene we find him alone in her apartment, waiting for her to get home. Is she okay with what shocked her merely one scene ago? Is she complacent because she’s under-confident, or because she can get something she desperately wants from him? It all gets muddled and left me with more questions than answers.
Director Johnny Moreno guides the production well when things get steamy, but otherwise he has his two actors just wandering at random. There is great power in stillness, and Moreno affords his actors none of that. Maurice Vercouere’s sets are spare and clean. Sound designer Steve Schoenbeck creates appropriate moods, and Derrick Scocchera’s projections make the scene transitions delightfully metaphoric.
All in all, San Jose Stage Company’s “Sex With Strangers” is an uneven production – good technical elements presenting an uneven script with uneven performances. It’s worth a look, but ultimately barely satisfies.
“Sex With Strangers” continues at the San Jose Stage Company through October 30. For more information, click here.
Rating: ** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Sex With Strangers” by Laura Eason. Produced by San Jose Stage Company. Director: Johnny Moreno. Scenic/Lighting Designer: Maurice Vercoutere. Costume Designer: Jean Cardinale. Sound Designer: Steve Schoenbeck. Projections Designer: Derrick Scocchera. Props Coordinator: Jean Trampeneau
Cast: Ethan: Matthew Kropschot. Olivia: Allison F. Rich