Monday, March 21, 2016

"Sex With Strangers" Opens at City Theatre - Condoms Optional

Megan Byrne and Nick Ducassi in "Sex with Strangers" Photo Credit:  Kristi Jan Hoover

    If you want intellectual stimulation or a play that makes you feel, "Sex With Strangers" may not be your cup of tea. But if you want to laugh, be immensely entertained, tap into your voyeuristic inclinations and get a peek inside the world of book publishing and its digital age applications,  "Sex With Strangers" is just the ticket.
You might suspect that the romcom’s scenario of a single woman spending the night alone in a north Michigan bed and breakfast with a blizzard raging outdoors cutting off cell phone and Internet service followed by the unexpected arrival of male stranger would lend itself to a play in the thriller genre. But with that given as the starting point, playwright Laura Eason immediately wipes away those nefarious mental cobwebs spinning a tale that’s at once jocose, smashingly well written and entertaining in a middlebrow way.
Two writers, opposites in many ways, find themselves together in the close confines of a remote B and B confrontation. Olivia (Megan Byrne) is the more sensitive, introspective of the two, a 39 year-old still licking her wounds after her promising early novel failed to get the sales and critical reviews she thought it deserved. Now supporting herself by teaching, she’s still writing, not for the public, but as a hobbyist, "only to please herself."
Her novel, however, has caught the eye of fellow author, Ethan (Nick Ducassi), a 28-year old boy wonder who made a good bit of change and got a share of the public limelight as a result of a bet that he could seduce a different woman every week for a year. The details of these affairs he chronicled in a blog with the alluring title :Sex With Strangers," which later became a "New York Times" Best Seller book, then a film.

Nick Ducassi and Megan Byrne Photo Credit: Kristi Jan Hoover 
On first meeting, Olivia is understandably wary, but Ethan’s lothario experiences give him an overwhelming advantage when it comes to seducing even the most reluctant wench. He is also very persuasive and comes armed with praise for Olivia’s failed book and even quotes lines from the book. Nothing, it seems, breaks the ice like a good dose of sycophancy.
Beset by Ethan’s flattery, quick wit, literary successes, persuasive personality and sexual charisma, Olivia succumbs to his advances, reluctantly at first, and the couple initiates the first of four enthusiastic sexual encounters that heats up the stage but ends just before things get lewdly demonstrative.
As savvy as Ethan is about e-publishing and digital age commerce, Olivia clings to earlier ways that include paper books, vinyl records and CD albums. His efforts to get her book republished under a pseudonym and fake bio involve more modern technologies. He proposes that the book be released as an e-book, then promoted on his newly created literary app.
The age difference between the two writers alone makes you wonder about Ethan’s true intentions, and the playwright keeps you guessing till the end about the motivations and depth of the relationship of both characters.
In Act Two, the setting moves to Olivia’s Chicago apartment. As might be expected from an avid book reader’s abode, there are enough tomes on the shelves to fill an entire section of the Carnegie Library. Where set designer Tony Ferrieri got his hands on this massive trove of hardbacks remains a mystery, but I look for a fundraising book sale from the City Theatre in the near future as a result.
As the play progresses, Olivia’s fortunes take a turn for the better, thanks in part to Ethan’s machinations that not only get her book published but also selling well. But as her future brightens so does their relationship, both professional and personal, darken.
Byrne plays a sensitive, introspective, level-headed, yet vulnerable Olivia. There’s plenty of intelligence lurking inside her low-key demeanor giving her plenty of ammunition to fend of Ethan’s suspected sociopathic tendencies.
On the other hand, Nick Ducassi is disarmingly charming and leaves the door open as to the true and possibly benign, nature of his character. The playwright gives him a horde of quick-witted dialogue and rejoinders that he seems to relish as an actor really enjoying a fully lived-in role. As a combo, the two actors are a perfect yin and yang match up that don’t let their evident differences stand in the way of their erotic chemistry.
Christian Parker’s direction allows the play to breath organically and come to life with convincing reality. It would be remiss not to mention Andrew David Ostrowski’s lighting design, his 70th theatrical production at City Theatre. For "Sex," the way he sets off the Michigan blizzard outside the B and B living room window is both magical and inventive.
Whoever is responsible for the quixotic ending to the play - be it the playwright or the director, I relish the unresolved closure. Will the romantic liaison and professional collaborations continue into the future or not? If nothing else, the open-ended finish will provide plenty of food for thought and discussion on the drive back home.
"Sex with Strangers" is at the City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s South Side through April 3. For tickets and other information, phone 412-431-2489 or visit website

Nick Ducassi and Megan Byrne Photo Credit:  Kristi Jan Hoover

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