What a difference actors make. Eerily uninflected performances of Stefan Golaszewski’s deliberately mundane dialogue keeps the first 20 minutes of “Sex With a Stranger” afloat, if not exactly flowing. But thanks to seriously over-indulgent direction, patience wears thin and it becomes clear that even this cast cannot lend the hyper-naturalistic script the profundity it thinks is has.
Less of a play than a series of observations surrounding the implications of a one-night stand, “Sex With a Stranger” initially focuses on Adam (Russell Tovey) and Grace (Jaime Winstone) who meet while out clubbing. He ends up at her place, but it’s not long before we realize that other people are involved. Grace is engaged, Adam lives with musician Ruth (Naomi Sheldon).
Plot, however, is not a major concern for TV scribe Golaszewski. He’s more interested in the sub-Mike Leigh-style minutiae of his characters’ behavior, not least their understanding — or lack thereof — of the pain they cause. Like Pinter in “Betrayal,” he’s also playing with time, cutting occasionally forward but mostly backwards to scenes of domestic boredom and frustration leading up to the sex.
All of this would be entirely valid were it handled with greater insight or attack. As it is, Golaszewski’s highly self-conscious approach presents scenes in dozens of tiny snapshots that underline the writer’s intentions more than creating genuine engagement with the characters’ plights.
Many of the jump-cuts only inch scenes forward. The seemingly random timing of the edit points for these tiny scenes may be intentional — it delineates the shapelessness of these lives — but there’s no reason for monotonous lives to be presented with such dramatic monotony.
Other scenes are directed to drag on interminably, repeatedly making the same point that these characters cannot articulate their helplessness. The rhythm of the evening feels like a student’s first feature film in which all the close-up reaction shots are twice the length they need be.
Winstone gives Grace an artless, brash disposition that adds spark to the proceedings. Naomi Sheldon does plaintive very well and keeps her throughline going even when suffering from painfully over-extended directorial pacing. The evening belongs, however, to Tovey (“Being Human”), whose quiet strength brings consistency to a character whose behavior as written doesn’t properly hang together. Collectively, it’s abundantly clear that the actors don’t patronize the characters. But, unintentionally or not, there’s a distinct impression that the writer does.