‘Sex With Strangers’ is anything but sexy

Steppenwolf Theatre’s latest play has an undeniably alluring title. In conjunction with an equally seductive poster, one might expect the play’s content to inspire some… naughty diversion. However, I was very surprised to discover that Laura Eason’s “Sex With Strangers” is missing just that.”That was pretty sexless sex,” my companion astutely observed as we exited the theatre. She was absolutely correct. Although the play succeeds as a piece of social commentary, there are very evident attempts to avoid an eroticism that the material desperately calls for.

Olivia (Sally Murphy) is in her 30s and infinitely haunted by a novel she wrote in her 20s that received mixed reviews by the press. Although she was very young when it was first published, and it is currently out of print, Olivia cannot bring herself to share her writing anymore. She relishes in the comfort of obscurity and accepts the life of a starving artist.

Enter Ethan (Stephen Louis Grush), a young and in-demand author who made his fame by blogging about his “sexcapades” with a multitude of women (think Tucker Max of “I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell”). After a one-night stand, the two form a mutually beneficial relationship: Olivia helps Ethan find his voice as a serious author and Ethan helps Olivia appeal to a wider audience on the internet.

Eventually, their offline and online personalities clash, leading to intense verbal altercations and profound revelations about love and life on and off the internet.

The piece is certainly topical. Steppenwolf’s theme for this season explores how the public and private parts of our lives thrive in such a complex and sometimes dangerous world. Online, a person does not have to deal with true human interaction and, as a result, feels liberated and expressive. Ethan assumes the identity of a self-proclaimed misogynistic, sex-crazed jerk.

Olivia eventually begins to understand that the stories Ethan wrote, though he protests, really display a true darker side of Ethan. Eason has identified the fears older generations have about the progression to social networking and employs Olivia to display these concerns and, through the characters’ discoveries, examines the implications of society’s dual lifestyles. Her dialogue is shrewd and biting, rendering most of their heated conversations very gripping.

Eason’s wonderfully complex characters are captured with fervent spirit by both Murphy and Grush who give excellent performances. Murphy captures the eccentricity of a true book-aholic and author with a hint of sexiness lurking beneath the endearing nerdiness. As the relationship progresses, the audience really feels deeply for Olivia and longs for her stability, proving Murphy’s performance deeply affecting and wickedly smart. Similarly, Grush finds the varying nuances of Ethan and fearlessly plays his best and worst attributes to the fullest. When the couple quarreled, there were audible gasps in the audience; moreover, both actors brought life to their characters, carrying the play with grace and expertise.

With all of that said, their attempts to bypass the sexuality of the play really prevents the production from being a complete experience. Grush and Murphy have excellent chemistry together. Within 15 minutes, a palpable sexual tension arises between the two players and it becomes obvious that the events of the evening will indubitably end in the sack. They move closer together- tension is heightened. He goes in for a kiss. She accepts. They start to move even closer and… Blackout… Really?! They barely kiss! They build the tension to an extreme high and then let the audience down by completely avoiding the most cathartic aspect of human relationship.

Let me make this clear, I am not suggesting they should simulate intercourse-that is not what the play is about; however, when almost every scene ends with such anticipation, the audience deserves some foreplay at the very least.

The immediate blackouts draw attention to this awkward unease and make the actors seem less brave than I know they really are. Director Jessica Thebus helmed the loquacious portions of “Sex With Strangers” with mastery and great skill, but whenever her characters get feisty, she backs away. Nonetheless, the play functions as a relevant allegory about modern love, and the outstanding performances really make the production worthwhile.