'Sex With Strangers'

A big smiley-face emoticon for "Sex With Strangers," an uncommonly satisfying two-person dramedy about relationships in the iAge.

A big smiley-face emoticon for “Sex With Strangers,” an uncommonly satisfying two-person dramedy about relationships in the iAge. Traditional in form yet contemporary in character and subject matter, play has already been buzzed about (or, more accurately, blogged about) for Broadway, which itself is a compliment for this smart, intimate, unpretentious work. A well-told story with convincing characters and something to say, “Sex with Strangers” shouldn’t seem like such an unusual occurrence. But it does.

The play depicts the romantic entanglement of Ethan (Stephen Louis Grush), a twentysomething iPhone addict whose tasteless blog, called Sex With Strangers, has become a bestselling book and a soon-to-be motion picture, and Olivia (Sally Murphy), a humble teacher in her late thirties who happens to be a gifted novelist who retreated from writing because she couldn’t handle the duel sting of public criticism and commercial failure.

Likely inspired by the real-life, self-described “asshole” Tucker Max (author of “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell”), Ethan is brash and obnoxious. But, unlike Max (as far as one can tell), he’s also oddly charming, and aspires to write a book as good as Olivia’s. He and Olivia end up at the same Michigan bed and breakfast writers’ retreat during a snowstorm because his writing teacher was her classmate, which also explains how Ethan came to be one of Olivia’s only true fans.

It’s a terrific and exceedingly simple conceit — the misogynistic youth suddenly open to falling in love, and the mature woman who wants to believe he’s sincere when his very publicly available online persona suggests he must not be trusted.

Eason manages to succeed in everything that often makes two-person plays so tricky. The story never becomes fully predictable and always remains involving; the dialogue is filled with funny, insightful commentary on how the Internet has altered the relationship between public and private selves, but the smart lines never become smug, and the thematic considerations never overwhelm the character-based plot. It even manages to be sexy without being the slightest bit sordid.

Jessica Thebus’ production currently favors fast pace over emotional nuance, but that will likely improve with time. Grush, a young and talented actor who also played the role when it was workshopped in 2009, captures Ethan’s dual persona very effectively. Murphy, who played the middle Weston daughter in “August: Osage County,” is new to the work, and while she’s excellent at manifesting Olivia’s insecurities, she may need some help from Eason, or at least Thebus, to keep Olivia from becoming too much a character the plot happens to rather than an equal player.

The flaws are minor, though, and “Sex With Strangers” possesses an obviously broad appeal. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that the play is so of its moment – in fact, since the workshop Eason has already added the iPad as an essential component in the life of both the hip young professional and the dedicated reader – that it can’t remain static for too long without becoming a period piece.

“Sex With Strangers” needs to expose itself with less producing foreplay than other works might allow.

Sex With Strangers

Steppenwolf Theater; Chicago; 265 seats; $73 top

Production

A Steppenwolf Theater Company presentation of a play in two acts by Laura Eason. Directed by Jessica Thebus.

Creative

Set, Todd Rosenthal; costumes, Ana Kuzmanic; lighting, J.R. Lederle; music and sound, Andre Pluess, Kevin O'Donnell; stage manager, Christine D. Freeburg. Opened Jan 30, 2011. Reviewed Jan. 29. Runs through May 15. Running Time: 1 HOUR, 55 MIN.

Cast

Olivia - Sally Murphy
Ethan - Stephen Louis Grush

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