By Bill Hirschman
What does a man profiteth if he gains technology and loses his artistic soul? And can romance survive ambition when the two collide?
Those two issues, along with scores of corollaries, swirl through the entertaining and thought-provoking Sex With Strangers, accurately subtitled “a romantic comedy for the digital age” kicking off Theatre at Arts Garage’s second incarnation.
The prolific, oft-produced but little known playwright Laura Eason (best known for Netflix’s House of Cards) pits two charming and intelligent creative writers who are poles apart in every department except their shared love of good writing and a perfectly understandable sexual attraction.
Ethan is a 28-year-old tech-savvy, social media-savvy hunk who has turned his conscienceless light-hearted sex blog about seducing a different woman into bed every night for a year into a shallow but wildly popular New York Times best seller and now he wants to launch an e-book publishing ap. Olivia is a nearly-40 teacher who wrote one highly-accomplished but variably-received literary novel in her own youth and is now nursing a second manuscript toward completion.
The two are thrown together at an isolated Michigan cabin where Olivia is trying to edit her book and Ethan has come on several secret missions, partly involving his own desire to write a serious novel.
The aforementioned lust for literature as well as carnal knowledge lay the foundation for a shaky but intriguing relationship that will be sorely tested by the unrestrained (even unprincipled) opportunities afford by the intersection of technology and art treating literature as just more grist for the pop culture mill.
As the two circle, spar, couple and banter, the audience is treated to a winning portrayal of conflicting emotions and ideas. At one point, Ethan wants Olivia to e-publish her work. In gentle rebuke, bibliophile Olivia mockingly lifts an Ipad to her nose and sniffs at it as if trying to inhale the aroma of an old book.
At another point, Ethan explains that an e-book can be hawked online with fake reviews that the author and his buddies write, a practice so cynical that they include a few negative ones to dispel the public’s suspicion.
The play lands solidly because Eason has an ear for electric-blue romantic banter, a head for brainy issues, R-rated dialogue and an unusual meld of compassion and sophistication about relationships in the current zeitgeist.
She almost stuffs too much into it as two strangers somehow manage to address a huge list of dilemmas facing creative souls: from the modern marketing of art to the internal agonies of artists inherently awash in self-doubt. There’s the ambivalence of artists riskily exposing things in their work far more personal than their bodies. It questions the seductive power of popular acceptance in pressing artists to compromise. Particularly interesting is whether artistic ambition trumps emotional commitment.
Eason draws resonances among art in the post-modern area and those casual sexually-based hookups. At one point, Olivia bemoans about the cyber-book, “There’s nothing to hold on to! There are costs to these things, things that are lost!” Obviously, she’s also talking about modern relationships as well.
But what likely makes it work on the stage are the engaging and always credible performances from Michael Uribe and Jacqueline Laggy, molded by director Genie Croft. They seem real people whose love for creation spurs them to dorm room debates, rather than two-dimensional spokespeople for viewpoints Eason wants to explore.
As the hard-driving yet appealing Ethan, Uribe radiates the hyperdrive energy needed to propel this show which is primarily two people talking a great deal moments before succumbing to an almost magnetic need to begin taking each other’s clothes off. Uribe was magnetic in The Little Dog Laughed at Island City Stage and in numerous parts in Summer Shorts. But this role is much harder. Without alienating the audience, Uribe persuasively inhabits a young man born into this culture, someone who doesn’t imagine let alone question the ethics of manipulative practices in selling art. Uribe’s Ethan has a similar conscienceless ethos about sex, something compartmentalized away from true romance – a division that can be difficult to abandon when true love appears.
In her quiet way, Laggy is just as compelling. She adds yet another finely-wrought creation completely different from her government interrogator in Primal Stages’ The Anarchist or her joyously anarchic canine in Boca Raton Theatre Guild’s Sylvia. Her Olivia has been as deeply wounded by the lackluster reaction to her first novel as if she had been abandoned by a lover. Laggy exudes that wonderfully brittle way with banter that evokes an intelligence as lovely as the woman herself. Anyone with an IQ would fall in love with her, and want to bed her, too. The actress with Croft’s guidance believably charts Olivia’s evolution and education from her interaction with Ethan.
Given that the characters are so different, it’s happily surprising that the two actors have a chemistry, although the fact that most scenes end with them suddenly bursting into pure passion seems a shade incredulous.
For such a talky show, Croft succeeds in keeping it moving as briskly as a speed date both in pacing and staging, plus she finds the tone of humor and emotion suffusing the script.
The play is the first of four to be presented at the Delray Beach venue under the new leadership of resident director Genie Croft and producing director Keith Garsson who operated the late mainstream Boca Raton Theatre Guild and edgier Primal Forces.
Sex With Strangers runs through Nov. 15 at Arts Garage, 180 N.E. First St., Delray Beach. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Saturday Nov. 7; and 2 p.m. Sundays and Saturday Nov. 14. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes with one intermission. Tickets $30-$45. Call 561-450-6357 or visit artsgarage.org.