A rom-com for thinking people, Sex With Strangers at City Theatre combines humor, insight and a 21st-century version of the Faustian bargain: You can sell your soul but retain the marketing rights. Laura Eason’s crisp 2009 play also tussles with the increasing digital manifestation of life, the universe and everything, and the concomitant minimization of privacy.
Sex posits two frustrated writers. Blogger Ethan (Nick Ducassi) has achieved wealth and celebrity while still in his 20s — but not recognition of his literary talent, as yet unreleased to the world. Now in her lonely 30s, Olivia (Megan Byrne) wrote a brilliant debut novel in her youth, but it was badly marketed by her publisher, burying her creative career, and turning her to what “those who can’t do” do: teach. (I must add that I have long observed, and been puzzled by, cover art designed to attract people who wouldn’t want to read what’s actually inside, and to repel those who would enjoy it.)
What makes Sex so sexy is not just the near-chemical attraction of this pair, but also their frictions over technology, secrecy, age differences. Ethan puppyishly adores Olivia and/or her talent. She is attracted as well, or maybe lust conquers her suspicions. Neither really knows who the other person is, nor do they want to reveal themselves. Even to themselves.
Directed by Christian Parker, Sex packages intelligent dialogue and quirky characters with style. Byrne and Ducassi are perfect personifications, poetic but not precious. City resident scenic designer Tony Ferrieri delivers two luscious sets: a rustic B&B in snowy rural Michigan (neutral territory for the couple to meet), and Olivia’s minimalist but comfortable Chicago apartment (the coming battle zone). Both are admirably lit by designer Andrew David Ostrowski, with sound and original music by Elizabeth Atkinson, and costumes by Jessica Wegener Shay. Resident City production stage manager Patti Kelly keeps all those scenes running smoothly.
City and Sex With Strangers present credible, complex characters: charming but deeply flawed. Who is manipulating whom? Who betrays whom? We can care about these people even though we may realize we wouldn’t like them in real life. Whatever that may be.