In the winter of 2016, TheaterWorks produced the Connecticut premiere of Laura Eason's romantic drama "Sex With Strangers," while Hartford Stage staged Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and the Yale Repertory Theatre world-premiered Jen Silverman's Gothic drama "The Moors."
This October, we get to see "Sex With Strangers" again, co-starring Hartford's Romeo, Chris Ghaffari, and the sweet, vulnerable Moor-Hen from "The Moors," Jessica Love. This new production, at the Westport Country Playhouse through Oct. 14, is directed by Katherine M. Carter. She was the assistant director on the similarly room-bound, creativity-themed "Art" and "Red" at the playhouse a year ago.
Ghaffari's already becoming a Connecticut staple. He graduated from the Yale School of Drama just last year, and in addition to "Romeo and Juliet," he appeared at Westport Country Playhouse in Joe Orton's "What the Butler Saw." He's a young, attractive, athletic actor who's supremely comfortable in his body. In the Orton play, he had to streak across the stage naked and look as silly as possible while doing it. As Romeo, he leapt up to a stone, mausoleum-like balcony to smooch his beloved Juliet. He's ideal as the superconfident blogger-turned-novelist Ethan in "Sex With Strangers," a writer who has gained a career, and a rakish reputation, from chronicling over a hundred drunken hook-ups with women in bars.
In the play, Ethan's latest romance isn't a conquest. He becomes infatuated with a writer he's long admired, whom he meets when they're both snowed in at a writer's retreat in Michigan. Unlike the cocksure Ethan, Olivia is full of insecurities and anxieties. She had such a bad experience with the publication of her first novel that it has taken years for her to write another one, which she is guarding carefully.
Olivia's main occupation since her ill-fated first novel has been teaching, and Love finds a teacherly tone for Olivia that can be brusque (as when she admonishes Ethan for mispronouncing the name of Marguerite Duras) but also sensitive, and is ideal for the character.
The impulsive Ethan and the careful Olivia aren't just a volatile mix for a romance. They also represent the changing tides of modern publishing. He is an adherent of e-publishing and is starting his own literary app. She can't imagine writing a book that she can't physically hold in her hands and is entranced by the idea of signing a contract with an old-school publishing house like Farrar Straus & Giroux.
The actors have good instincts, but one of the pleasures of "Sex With Strangers" is that Laura Eason writes convincingly about the literary lifestyle. She drops the right authors' names, gushes appropriately about great books and captures the special ways in which writers tend to praise each other.
Another of the pleasures of the play is that it's as sexy as the title suggests it will be. Most of the scenes end with the actors leaping passionately at each other and shedding some clothing before the lights go out.
Though the plot is propelled by Ethan's bad-boy insouciance and impetuousness, it's neatly balanced so that Olivia doesn't become subservient to his youthful wildness. Yes, the play revolves around his comings and goings, but she's already in the rooms that he's entering, projecting a stability and control that he couldn't undermine if he wanted to.
Edward T. Morris provides a scenic design that is comfortable both intellectually and physically, with piles of books and large, soft couches. The scene change in the intermission, when the stage transforms from a bed and breakfast retreat in the midwest to a bookcase-filled apartment in New York City, earned its own round of applause from the audience at the Sunday matinee I attended.
Westport Playhouse has a wider, deeper performance area than TheaterWorks does. What Westport loses in terms of intimacy (at TheaterWorks you could read the titles on the books on the bookcases), it makes up for with spaciousness. It's invigorating to see Olivia and Ethan launch themselves at each other hungrily from across such large rooms.
"Sex With Strangers" has been one of the most produced plays in the country for two years running. Expect to see it in Connecticut many more times in the years to come, though perhaps not on such a grand scale as you'll find it in Westport. Passion takes many forms. This is one of the worthier ones.
SEX WITH STRANGERS runs through Oct. 14 at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m.; Wednesday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $70. 203-227-4177, westportplayhouse.org.