“Sex With Strangers” sounds like fun. Scribe Laura Eason certainly tries hard to make it so, with a cunning plot about a callow young author of bestselling dreck who seduces a gifted older novelist whose brilliant work he loves and envies. You don’t often come across a romance featuring literary figures who get all hot and bothered talking about literature, and stars Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen do their lip-smacking best to steam up the stage. While it may seem churlish to resist the big charm offensive, this is one of those in-your-dreams fantasies that evaporate by the dawn’s early light.
This romantic two-hander, which was developed and launched by Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, is at its most engaging — irresistible, really — in the opening scene. Here, Eason deftly introduces her unlikely lovers — a serious but unappreciated older novelist and a bestselling young hack who churns out softcore porn — and lets them show us what an adorably mismatched pair they are.
That crucial first look, so carefully engineered by helmer David Schwimmer, plays out on Andromache Chalfant’s handsome set of a nearly deserted bed-and-breakfast in deepest, darkest Michigan. Japhy Weideman’s lighting catches the richness of the midnight-blue walls and Fitz Patton’s sound design picks up on the wind that’s whipping up a snowstorm outside. Is this cozy, or what?
Olivia Lago (Gunn, who survived five seasons on “Breaking Bad”) is a 40-ish author who looks as if she belongs in this secluded setting. Curled up under a comforter with a bottle of wine, she’s surrounded by books and is proofing a manuscript when Ethan Kane (Magnussen) blows in the door on the winds of a snowstorm. Although tired and famished, this handsome young visitor is so supremely self-confident that within the first five minutes of his arrival, he has raided the kitchen, claimed the couch, and taken possession of Olivia’s bottle of wine.
That kind of youthful cockiness can make any grown woman recoil in horror. But how can you despise someone who politely poses the question: “Am I seeming like a dick?”
If anyone can make the arrogant Ethan lovable, it’s Magnussen, who earned a Tony nomination as the boy-toy Sigourney Weaver brought to the party in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” Picking up on Ethan’s Type A personality quirks, he has a charming little fit when he can’t find a phone signal, panics when he can’t get online, and throws himself to the floor in full-blown tantrum when it sinks in that he can’t even stream a movie. Even when he goes over the top with these shenanigans, the thesp is still cute as a bug.
Despite her crippling lack of self-respect, Olivia would appeal to any civilized man who appreciates an attractive lady with brains and talent, qualities effortlessly conveyed by Gunn. But what does shallow Ethan see in this classy broad? As it turns out, he’s a fan of her “brilliant” book and has purposely tracked her down in hopes that he can learn how to write like her. If he weren’t such a charmer, you might call him a stalker.
Warming up to his seduction, Ethan reveals that he, too, is an author. As “Ethan Strange,” he writes enormously successful books pulled from a sex blog that goes over big with the horny dudes and stupid girls in their 20s who keep his trash on the bestseller lists. While Olivia has nothing but contempt for his work, she’s turned on by Ethan’s commercial success in the same way that he lusts after her literary talent.
Eventually, she even gets the appeal of his dirty books. “Having sex with strangers can be good,” she says. “No expectations, no disappointments.” From there, all it takes is for Ethan to start quoting from her book. And then, slam-bang, they’re rolling around on the coffee table … and the floor … and the side of the wall … and even the bed …
Gunn and Magnussen play the sex scenes with noisy gusto, making a great case for, as the title says, sex with strangers. But while they make convincing partners for a one- or two-night stand, the fun fantasy breaks down in the problematic second act, which finds them in Olivia’s cheerless apartment in Chicago and having a serious relationship.
In a too-neat reversal of fortune, the couple has gone through some radical changes. Olivia has found the success and recognition she yearned for, and Ethan is totally committed to being a serious writer. But after their shared intimacy, they suddenly turn on one another in unrealistic ways that only playwrights, never human beings, can engineer.
Are we to conclude, then, that people are much nicer to one another when they’re having sex with strangers?