Give one sentence that totally encapsulates who you are. Impossible. What if you’re an egomaniac? That’s simple. You don’t care what people say about you as long as they say something. What if you’re a deeply insecure and rapidly approaching middle-age writer whose rejection track record has kept your current literary prospects from being approachable? That’s a bit more complex. It might be best if you don’t try to find that sentence and instead venture to Colonial Players to see their production of Sex With Strangers. Written by playwright Laura Eason, and Directed by Dave Carter, this warped examination of strikingly accurate reality is off the beaten path in regards to the usual bill of fare for the quaint community theatre. Edgy, mature, and risqué, this sharp drama has a rawness to it, despite the quasi-trite and overdone nature of the plot’s baseline.
Scenically the set design is simple. Edd Miller ensures character focus in this fashion, despite the drastic flip between the cozy Michigan cottage and the bourgeois Chicago City apartment, which thankfully occurs across the intermission. Too much scenery can readily hamper a production, especially in an intimate in-the-round spacing like Colonial Players where there is no cheating away little mistakes or hiding ill-fated nuances. That said, both Properties and Costume Designer Jennifer Cooper manages to do a respectable job of keeping all the little details in check (except for the extremely smudgy— and from just about any seat in the house, noticeable— iPad screen, which is incongruous with the notion that it’s a brand new present.) right down to the very flattering selection of clothing that she makes for the lead female. Not overly frumpy but not trendy enough to be hip, the clothing selection is well-suited for the character’s age and insecurities.
Lighting, as designed by Alex Brady, is a sublime design feature in this production. Often used to highlight the thermally dynamic fluctuations of the sexual scenes between the two characters— with fiery reds, tawdry purples, and an occasional mix of the aforementioned and striking blue— the use of light is a hard cue, timed impeccably with Sarah Wade’s sound design, to the close of a scene. Wade tackles each steamy ending— whether it’s sexual, emotional, or conflicting— with an appropriate song ripped from the mid-90’s, giving a sense of raw nostalgia and relatability to anyone who lived through the era.
Where Director Dave Carter’s skills lack is in quickening the scenic changes. As nothing happens to the physical scenery (and after the second shift it is glaringly apparent that these long-haul blackouts are designed to cover costume changes), and despite Wade’s extremely pleasing audio selections, the blackouts between scenes linger a bit too long; this puts some hiccups into the show’s overall momentum. That said, Carter does an excellent job of encouraging the show’s natural tension to thrive, building from scene to scene as plot points are revealed, characters’ lives unfurl, and the show reaches its conclusion.
Dylan Roche and Elizabeth Hester, playing Ethan and Olivia respectively, are dynamic opposites, each falling drastically in step with the emotional maturity of their character’s ages. Roche, whose cocky, self-assured, egomaniacal millennial character is so off-putting and obnoxious that it almost makes the first scene unpalatable, hits an emotional ceiling early on. While deeply steeped in the ability to have outbursts— both of jackassery and douchebaggery as well as fury and fear— every emotional moment of expressions feels as if it falls just a little bit short of where it could be, where it should be. This may be an intentional choice of both actor and director to show the character’s limitations, but if this is the case, it’s unclear. That said, Roche has the perfect physical for the role, which revolves around physical sexuality, and shows no discomfort whatsoever when engaging in these scenes on stage.
Elizabeth Hester’s Olivia is far more reserved. Her cheeky and sarcastic retorts are all they’re cracked up to be. Playwright Laura Eason has penned a greater deal of depth into the character and more fully developed a full arc of transition for Olivia, giving Hester more to work with. Hester relies mainly on her facial expressions followed by healthy doses of tonal inflection to get her point across. The majority of the limitations that Hester faces are the faults in Eason’s writing, mainly with some of the overarching topic being somewhat trite and a bit too rooted in esoteric reality of writing and publishing. The big climactic reveal in the penultimate scene doesn’t deliver as much bang for your buck if you’re unfamiliar with publishing rights and book publishing processes. Hester does a fine job of reciprocating chemistry and fully developing each of the emotional motions that her character explores over the course of the piece.
Edgy and sophisticated, sexy and dangerous as well as intriguing, Sex With Strangers is as interesting as it is unusual. Well worth a ticket and good for an afternoon or evening’s entertainment.
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission
Sex With Strangers plays through March 18, 2018 at The Colonial Players of Annapolis— 108 East Street in historic Annapolis, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 268-7373 or purchase them online.