(WARNING: One of the Sisters is involved in this play. Although that person did NOT write this review, I thought I should warn you. Now you’ve been warned.)
So I stumbled into a theater with lots of books- and it says “take one.” I hit the jackpot! I have died and gone to heaven! I frequent the Book Thing, so free books might be my love language. But I digress, I am here to see “Sex with Strangers” the first offering of FPCT’s 18/19 season. And I know nothing about it, except apparently there’s free books, and I am just going out on a limb here, someone has sex with a stranger (spoiler alert).
As you enter the theater you are greeted by pop hits that all have one major theme in common- they have the word or theme of sex. We heard “Rude Boy” by Rihanna to start, followed by some more or less subtle instances. (What? No Right Said Fred?) I saw the cover, heard the music, and prepared my mind for this show- I didn’t know it was that kind of party- I may not be wearing the right shoes. I open the press packet to a random page that says, “Books are finite, sexual encounters are finite, but the desire to read and to f*ck is infinite, it surpasses our own deaths, our fears, our hopes for peace.” –Roberto Bolano. Damn, these are definitely the wrong shoes.
The plot is fairly straight-forward. Olivia, a published writer, is staying at a small retreat in Michigan to get some writing and editing done. Enter Ethan, young, cocky and magnetic. He is notorious for his shock jock writing titled “Sex with Strangers” where he chronicles his bar adventures for the world to view. (Tucker Max anyone?) They get snowed in. No internet, nothing much to do, they start talking about writing- and find they vary in style and format but both love many of the same classics. One thing leads to another, and well, sex with strangers. The play progresses as they develop a relationship, and have mutual admiration and care, but also a lot of differences of opinion.
The real gem of this play though is hands-down the acting. The only two people in the cast are Kathryne Daniels and Matthew Lindsay Payne. Kathryne is magnificent to watch. Her character arcs so beautifully, from her twitches as she is pulled into directions she doesn’t agree with, to her side eye glances when she wants to avoid confrontation, even her use of barriers to avoid unwanted information or contact; this character crafting was top-notch. She is the pinnacle of a woman ruled by her own anxiety, but with a comical edge and funny gait. She might be a best selling author, but when she tries to do a sexy walk and trips on books she humanizes herself in the most delightful way. And Matthew Lindsay Payne, from his devilish grin, to charming mannerisms- his cocky collaborations, or self deprecating musings- it is all too perfect a role. He appears forward but alluring, and even yells in the opening sequence from the other room, “am I being a dick?” Well, he kind of is, but you like him anyway and that is what makes the character intriguing. My date for the evening is not a big theater goer, and his comments when leaving the theater were, “that acting was on point, like, the whole time.” So, if you know him, that’s a high compliment.
The set design was fine, books stacks, couches, that classic globe that is secretly a bar. The lights were well timed too, black outs for sex scenes and location shifts. The actors seemed to be moving a whole lot of props themselves though during those blackouts making some of them longer than were really comfortable- but I get it- short staffed.
The other true masterpiece to discuss here is the direction (Patrick Gorirossi) and the use of Intimacy Choreographer, Emily Sucher. Gorirossi doesn’t pull back. Ever. This play is full throttle the whole way through- these two have to be exhausted at the end of every show. Their energy is palpable and their concentration is almost too much to bear. They are so fixated on each other, that the audience becomes a blur, a mere voyeur to their relationship. Sucher has been featured in several articles, especially in the midst of several prominent local and national scandals over sexual harassment. So how do you do a show about sex and still protect your actors? That’s where you hire Sucher, a member of Intimacy Directors International. She is “excited to be a part of the ground-floor effort to empower artists and to create truthful and safe theater.” And choreographed doesn’t really do justice to the sweeping, languid movements that are as crisp and they are beautiful. The sex scenes seem flawless. They seem natural, and that is what the goal is- for art to imitate life (or something like that).
The real question this play conjures is can you ever truly separate yourself from your past in this modern digital age? Say you did dumb things at nineteen, and they are on the internet, how do you rebound from that? Ethan (Payne) tries to convince Olivia (Daniels) that the “Sex with Strangers” bits are embellished for mass media appeal and in his past. But I know the adage too that a mountain of good deeds are often outweighed by the remembrance of one bad, or in layman’s terms, you fuck one goat… But at the height of the evening, Olivia and Ethan begin to argue and he shouts, “do you believe that (online info) over me?” and without missing a beat the women behind me in the theater both said, “yup.”
The overlay between scenes of an audio book was a nice touch- I just don’t know if it was all the same book or samples of various ones. Was it the classics that Olivia alludes to? I am a literature and book dork (you have no idea), and I couldn’t, in those small snippets, piece what story it was. And it was a little frustrating for me, cause I do love me some books (Keep count, I’ve said that like five times already).
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Go! This is a Baltimore premiere, and a kick off to another season at Fells Point Corner Theater. This show is way more intricate and intense than the title leads you to believe. There is something for everyone, romantic comedy, drama, reality theater, discussion of novels, power struggles, and an overarching theme of redemption. This show is beautiful and well paced, the acting is impressive, and the direction is bold. Grab a date and run, do not walk, to this show before it ends. (I)
Running at Fells Point Corner Theater through October 7th. Running time about an hour and forty-five minutes with one fifteen-minute intermission. Photo credit: David Iden.