In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

Nick Narcisi and Marti Gobel star in Renaissance's "Sex with Strangers." (PHOTO: Ross Zentner)

Like its characters, Renaissance's "Sex with Strangers" fails to connect

If you Google playwright Laura Eason, you'll find out that she's written 20 plays, the books to a few musicals and served as a writer on the Netflix series "House of Cards." At least that's what her website says. That's what she wants you to know.

If you meet her in person, say at a neighborhood bar, you may form a very different opinion about her. And if you read her published work, or see one of her plays ahead of time, you might imagine her persona to be different yet again. But online or in person, on paper or on an iPhone screen, you would get to know her through the information that she wants to share, that fits with the character she wants to create for you.

The differences between these versions, the distance between an online profile and the person standing in front of you, is a theme that's explored and exploded in Eason's play, "Sex with Strangers," which opened Renaissance Theaterworks's 25th season last night in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center.

In this suggestively titled two-hander, a pair of writers from vastly different backgrounds, with very different levels of tech saavy, meet at a bed and breakfast/writers' retreat in Michigan. On this snowy winter weekend, a storm has knocked out the internet. Since there's no signal for his phone, the cocky, young, blogger-turned-salacious-bestseller-writer Ethan (Nick Narcisi) is left to make small talk with the older, more sophisticated, novelist-struggling-in-obscurity Olivia (Marti Gobel), in order to get to know her.

Except that's not really true. Ethan has already read Olivia's book, recommended by a mutual, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer friend. And he's already looked her up online. He saw her picture on a dust-jacket and thought she was hot. He knew she was going to be there when he drove up from Chicago to put some finishing touches on the screenplay version of his book, "Sex with Strangers," about bedding a different girl each week by propositioning them in-person instead of online.

So who are the "real" Ethan and Olivia?

We surmise that Ethan has success, fame and a larger-than-life persona, but lacks credibility as a writer. Olivia has a teaching career and a book she keeps close to her chest, for fear it will be rejected by both critics and readers, as her last one was. She lacks confidence and a platform for her work. So clearly the two are a perfect match; they have the capacity to help – and hurt – each other greatly, both personally and professionally.

Their relationship begins with great sex and a mutual desire to be lauded for their literary prowess. But their connection is hindered by their insistence on hiding parts of themselves and searching for clues by reading each other's writing without permission. In the end, both characters try on a collection of aliases, online profiles and marketing ploys to fit their various agendas, with mixed results.

Again, who are the "real" Ethan and Olivia?

As Olivia, Gobel is both world-weary and wary. An older but wiser woman who has traveled, read and lived much more than her new lover, she hesitates in giving her heart but enjoys giving her body to this young buck, who is more accomplished in seduction than he is in writing.

As Ethan, Narcisi is brash, charming and disarming. His youthful swagger and his practiced pitches are no match for Olivia's reservations. But turning on a dime from the earnest, would-be novelist to the self-described asshole who screws women for sport and demeans them for profit, it's hard to tell where the true Ethan begins and ends. While the audience can see the gears turning in Gobel's head throughout the play, Narcisi is smooth and completely captivating, even when he is repulsive.

Director Mallory Metoxen keeps the talky drama moving, as the pair discusses the ins and outs of the publishing world (yawn) and spends increasingly more time engrossed in screens than in each other – an accomplishment, since nothing is more dull onstage than watching someone type. With the assistance of intimacy designer Christopher Elst, Metoxen tries to keep the sex intriguing, even though we only see the tiniest bit of foreplay before the couple adjourns to a bedroom.

But what begins as a tease devolves into unsatisfying routine, at least for the audience. The irony of course is that physical connection, where one should be the most vulnerable, is easiest for these two. Emotional and intellectual connection remains elusive as the different characters Ethan has created collide, leaving dissonance and disgust for Olivia.

Through too many plot twists, there are betrayals on both sides and a sense of inevitability from the beginning that this ill-fated pair of writers will remain strangers, despite all their attempts at connection.

And as evidenced by the final moment of the play, we'll never know who Ethan and Olivia "really" are either.

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