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Sex with Strangers — Philadelphia Theatre Company at Suzanne Roberts Theatre

sex with strangers -- interior 3Editor’s Update: In the month since I saw “Sex with Strangers” at New Brunswick’s George Street Theatre, JoAnna Rhinehart has caught up to Kyle Coffman in quality. David Saint’s production of Laura Eason’s play is now much more an occasion of acting equals and, consequently, an even more satisfying ping pong match of wit and personal style. Themes come out stronger as well. Eason’s play seems deeper and more faceted because Rhinehart has found her character’s core and is an exponentially more faceted person. Matters of trust, ethics, and who one really is beyond his or her persona sing louder and have more impact. All writers are suspected of being autobiographic and judged by their scribbles, especially novelists and particularly novelists with the talent of Olivia and Ethan. Eason breaks down the possible fallacy, or at least shows you why notions of biography can be false. Just as one can’t judge a book by its cover — something I, in a moment of autobiographical candor, admit I unfortunately am; I can’t enter a store if I don’t like its sign or windows — one cannot judge a writer by his or her storytelling. Or are we all part of everything we write, at least on some level of sensibility? Time, the better balance between Rhinehart and Coffman, a consequent tightening and intensifying of Saint’s staging, and a second exposure of Eason’s thoughts and expression, makes the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s presentation of “Sex with Strangers” even more rewarding than it was at its estimable George Street run. Hooray for all involved, but especially Ms. Rhinehart, who found a stride and deepened Olivia in way that adds both zing, surprise, and heart to a show that was already chocked with it.  Also, Scott Killian’s music, which seems jangly to the point of being irritating when heard pre-show takes on a smart, commentating role, totally conducive to all that is happening, when it punctuates the intervals between scenes once Saint’s production begins.– NZ

Ethan Kane is a literary talent and a literary entrepreneur.

He has to be the second to support himself as the first.

Though capable of writing at a caliber that would turn heads at Iowa or Yaddo, Ethan is canny enough to earn a reputation for book sales and acquire expertise in self-publishing and self-promotion in lieu of embarking on the tough task of finding an agent and a conventional publishing house that would issue his work in a form that is careening towards the obsolete but remains a valued and increasingly elusive goal of writers, the printed hardback book.

Ethan hasn’t even presented the manuscript Knopf, Farrar, or Random House might covet. Cleverly, he began a blog about a topic few can resist — hot, random, impersonal sex. When you see Kyle Coffman’s sexy, assured performance in Laura Eason’s play, “Sex with Strangers,” at the George Street Playhouse (en route to Philadelphia’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre), you know director David Saint chose the right actor for the role. Coffman immediately makes you believe his Ethan is one who can purposefully go out to a Manhattan bar each evening, engage in conversation with a woman, and persuade her to coitus.

Yes, entrepreneurial and technologically adept as Ethan is, he seduces in the old-fashioned way. That’s part of his allure and part of his challenge to himself, the ability to woo women by time-honored face-to-face meeting rather than by web browsing. Ethan shamelessly chronicles his nightly exploits in a blog called “Sex with Strangers” under the pseudonym Ethan Strange, He not only develops a legion of followers. He receives responses from the women he’s pleasured. Some of them even set up blogs of their own. Better, women who have not encountered Ethan pretend they have and write about their experiences with him.

The boy is his own cottage industry, sexually and literarily. Ethan self-publishes his “Sex with Strangers” blog and sells enough copies to attract a standard publishing house. Volumes of “Sex with Strangers” in its various form enjoy the viral and over-the-counter success of E.L. James’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” series, which began as a self-published novel. He is rich, famous, and able to make noise in all phases of the literary market, which he intends to do with a shrewd mobile app publishing scheme of his own.

Once, that is, he meets the deadline on the film script of “Sex with Strangers,” which has been optioned by a studio, and ready to begin production with Ethan as the screenwriter, a job he negotiated in order from the producer to gain the rights.

We meet Ethan as he arrives by car on a snowy night to a remote bed-and-breakfast in rural Michigan a woman who is partial to writers runs as a kind of writer’s retreat. The only one lodging at the B&B is Olivia, who has received critical and academic praise for a first novel. Olivia’s work garnered attention from quarters far loftier and more august than Ethan’s, but he’s the one with two best-sellers and a movie deal while she can boast of selling 300 copies of her quiet gem, and those mostly to college professors and readers who hunt for the obscure after skimming the New York Times and New York Review of Books each week or, in the case of the Review, two. (Guilty!!!)

Olivia is nearing 40, and her style is more mature than Ethan’s, as is her approach to writing and her ideas about publishing.

I don’t have to guess what was going on in Eason’s mind as she wrote “Sex with Strangers.” I’ve spoken to her and know that Ethan and Olivia represent the two voices she hears in her head as she approaches writing and how to market it.

Ethan, age 25, is willing to prostitute his talents by publishing what he knows is populist, salacious, but lucrative, drivel as a means to getting known and gaining entrée to any publisher he deigns to call. Olivia composes her elegant prose for what will probably turn out to be her eyes only. She will go the conventional route of trying to find an agent — Good luck!!! — and getting her manuscript, years in the writing, seen by people who might consider it as a minor title in their next spate of imprints.

Today, I can tell you that is as quixotic as trying to fly or harness electricity in a light bulb. It can be done, but after painstaking trial-and-error and more arduous perseverance. Major publishers print few new titles, and they look more closely than even for material that will appeal enough to make a profit in book stores and on the Internet. Most agents have given up handling clients and opened cupcake trucks and yoga schools. Most writers have to master self-publishing and hope for the miracle the fictional Ethan and the actual E.L. James enjoyed.

Given “Sex with Strangers” is a play, it’s not surprising that Olivia’s talent in prodigious. No, the bigger salvo comes from learning, via several means, that Ethan is equally gifted. They are both, as Eason creates them, bright, astute, funny, touching, and original.

This sets up a lot of dialogues about writing, writers’ markets, publishing, self-abnegation, and self-propulsion. Ethan has answers that seem smarmy or classless to the more traditional, more academically-minded Olivia.

As a writer, and one with three books that are ready to go to self-publication with a fourth in embryo, all Ethan and Olivia had to say riveted me. Eason hit on so much that is on my mind.

Using handy old authorial distance to separate myself from the arcane that is immediate to me, I can hear that the dialogue is crisp and engaging. You do not have to a writer, and in boats that correspond to Olivia’s and Ethan’s to appreciate it. Eason keeps the conversation lively and involves you in decision and ethics that could apply to any trade, industry, or vocation, and not just writing.

The opposite nature of the characters, and the force with which they mount their arguments, is engaging. Ethan speaks with spontaneous wit and has the nonchalance that comes with confidence and daring that have led to success. Olivia is more prim and ordinary. Her words are just as smart, and her dialogue as entertaining, but she is the voice of conservatism that might not be germane in this decade of this century (as it was in any decade of the 20th).

Eason is too canny a writer to build an entire play on the virtues of an esteemed publisher being preferable over the odds of getting noticed among the tomes that are being self-published. Literary yin and yang can only go so far.

Ethan is the master of sex and seduction. He is also a master of audacity.

Ethan doesn’t wait for a chance. He takes one. He doesn’t wait to be invited. He barges in or lurks in a corner and dares something to ask him to leave.

Ethan is cocky. He takes his product to the public, whether he’s peddling words or indulging his jollies.

He also knows the right moment to strike. Just when it looks as if Eason’s “Sex with Strangers” is going to parallel an earlier George Street offering, David Rush’s “Nureyev’s Eyes” (which later came to the Delaware Theatre Company), and be a series of scenes that are similarly structured and accomplish the identical mood and outcome with little variation, the author unleashes Ethan’s specialty, sex.

She also introduces a new element to Ethan’s persona, sincerity. Unlike the women with whom he callously and unemotionally had intercourse in the name of literary enterprise, he is attracted to Olivia. At first maybe an as interesting, classier, and more companionable a conquest, but eventually in the her own right, for her cautious ways and more guarded policy about letting people see her compositions.

Olivia is also attracted to Ethan. His direct, positive, common-sense, why-not approach to everything, including literature and producer’s deadlines (when the producer can’t proceed without him), is a bit of an aphrodisiac. Ethan skips all the nonsense about intention and pleasing powers that be and goes right to implementation and performance. There’s no stopping this guy.

And that includes when Coffman’s Ethan takes JoAnna Rhinehart’s Olivia to him and plants a kiss, one Olivia is shocked to receive but glad to have and responsive to. Ethan’s move towards Olivia is as audacious as his attitude towards publishing, but its instinct is right, and Eason and director David Saint time its planting perfectly.

Kyle Coffman helps a lot, On the surface, his Ethan is not much to look at.

Oh, Coffman’s cute. Very cute. But when we, and Olivia, see Ethan, he has just driven hours through a snowstorm from Chicago, where he and Olivia both live, and he looks matted and disheveled.

Beyond that, designer Michael McDonald dresses Coffman in what I call “Hollywood ugly,” light pullover shirts you can’t tell whether they’ve ever been washed or washed too often, nondescript jeans, and ratty fleece (everything this critic whose porn is a Brooks Brothers catalog, despises and resents Hollywood for propagating as a general style).

There’s something sexy about Coffman’s Ethan from the beginning, but there’s also an impression he’s not too clean and doesn’t take great pains to groom himself, as the elegant Olivia, dressed neatly and well even though she’s alone editing in the wilderness, does.

Sexuality comes roaring when Coffman sets Ethan to action. There’s a naturalness to the ease and speed with which Ethan takes Olivia by the waist to give her that first, unexpected kiss. It doesn’t seem like acting when Coffman sheds Ethan’s clothes or when he simulates intercourse on a sofa or against a door. Eason plots sex as a change-of-pace and has a mutual growth point in both of her characters, but Coffman makes it exciting. Ethan is practiced at sex and at making partners appreciative, and Coffman conveys the benefit of all he’s learned during his field research.

Once the first encounter takes place, you wait, patiently and involved by Eason’s dialogue, for the next instance of sex. Eason’s play is about so much more, but it also recognizes that everything comes down to the elemental. That sex is part of life, and that Ethan, though he takes the initiative, and Olivia, who would never be demonstrative without being asked, are fulfilling a natural destiny that derives from both opportunity and attraction.

In the course of non-sexual sequences, Ethan shows Olivia how to use his ideas to find more literary success.

His first moves in that direction are deceitful. He convinces Olivia about the wisdom of his ways by doing things she has not approved, although approval should be solely her privilege.

In that wise, “Sex with Strangers” is more than some exciting diddles made intense by Coffman’s surehanded knack for acting Ethan’s prowess. It is a play about clashing ideas, about the old per force surrendering to the new, and about collegiality. Remember that Ethan may have make his name and wealth by doing something brash and wildly commercial — and what’s wrong with that? — once he reveals his manuscript, Eason has put him on an equal footing with Olivia in terms of talent.

“Sex with Strangers” is more interesting than rich. It has several facets, but many of its scenes follow a similar paradigm, and arguments and results are clear before they expand or escalate. That said, Saint’s production and Coffman’s performance elevate the play. The characters are inviting, and their discussion, about life as well as literature and the selling of it, firmly holds your attention. Eason has enough to say that applies generally to give Saint a leg up in making sure “Sex with Strangers” moves and involves.

Kyle Coffman is the driving force in Saint’s production. His character gives him a headstart in that direction, but Coffman compounds his advantage by being so genuine and so viscerally and mentally present as Ethan, Kane or Strange.

Coffman’s performance is immediate. You don’t see the acting. Ethan bursts into the B&B, and all is of a piece. There’s a relaxed, natural tone who Coffman’s performance. He is Ethan, plain and simple. Ethan’s comfort with himself only emphasizes the vivacity, enthusiasm, and romantic inclination of the character as Coffman plays him. This lad may have come to Broadway as a “newsie,” but, baby look at him now!

JoAnna Rhinehart, in accord with Olivia’s nature, is more subdued and enclosed than Coffman’s Ethan.

But there are other matters Rhinehart, I hope, is working on between “Sex’s” runs in New Brunswick and in Philadelphia.

As an actress and a character, she does not match Coffman in blending into the character. You can hear Rhinehart reading lines instead of speaking naturally as Coffman does.

Rhinehart’s is a studied performance. Dialogue, although it engages, is done by the numbers. It seems to issue forth more from Rhinehart as an actress than from Olivia as a being. Neither Eason’s play nor Saint’s production is marred by this. Rhinehart is certainly credible and acceptable in her role. You come to like Olivia and respect several of her stances even when you know Ethan is right. The difference is one performer is competently going through motions while the other is doing seamless, exciting work.

it’s a blessing the juxtaposition doesn’t hurt the show. Rhinehart’s Olivia has no juices except when she is taken by Ethan and caught in flagrante delicious. She is dryer than she needs to be as Olivia and doesn’t exude personality while unobjectionable fulfilling all that Eason put on “Sex with Strangers’s” pages.

By the time Rhinehart comes to Philadelphia, she will have played “Sex with Strangers” for three weeks. In that time, greater familiarity with the character and more chances to speak Olivia’s lines may result in more effortless purpose and spontaneity.

Jason Simm’s set for the Michigan B&B, moose head and all, and Olivia’s Chicago apartment have a great sense of place and authenticity. As usual, I longed to see all of the titles that line Olivia’s Chicago shelves, but I realized Simms had cleverly used wallpaper to simulate her library. Very smart, especially since Christopher J. Bailey’s lighting give them dimension.

“Sex with Strangers” runs through Sunday, May 8 to Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes there are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 1 p.m. Wednesday (expect for April 13), 2 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets at PTC range from $62 to $24 and can be obtained by calling 215-985-0420 or by visiting www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org. Grade: A-

“Sex with Strangers” ran  through Sunday, March 27, at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, in New Brunswick, N.J.

 

 

 

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One comment on “Sex with Strangers — Philadelphia Theatre Company at Suzanne Roberts Theatre

  1. nzoren
    April 15, 2016

    Reblogged this on NealsPaper.

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