The palpable attraction and dueling ambition between a failed novelist and a younger, celebrated writer serves as the hot and heavy foundation of Laura Eason’s steamy 2014 off-Broadway drama “Sex with Strangers,” which receives its local premiere at the Loft Theatre courtesy of the Human Race Theatre Company and is running through Sunday, Feb. 18.
As a writer of the second and third seasons of the Emmy-winning Netflix political drama “House of Cards,” Eason is well-versed in filling mature relationships with substantial heat, fascinating complexity and absorbing intellect. Here, she crafts an intriguing two-hander concerning Olivia and Ethan, snowbound at a writer’s bed and breakfast retreat in Michigan. Their weekend tryst evolves into a long-term romance but at an emotional and professional cost, particularly as Ethan attempts to shed his bad-boy reputation and Olivia seeks the fame Ethan can offer her.
“When I first saw this show in New York, I was intrigued by the cat-and-mouse, sexually charged relationship, and believed it would speak to our modern audience,” said Kevin Moore, Human Race President and Artistic Director. “In this digitally dominated age, knowing a person’s true identity can be tricky.”
“This play is more compelling, deep and emotional than you would imagine at face value,” added Ben Palacios, who portrays Ethan. “The script is wonderful but there are still things I’m discovering in it that gets to me.”
“And at the same rate, there is a lot of humor, playfulness and sexiness, which is great,” echoed Jennifer Johansen, who portrays Olivia. “This is a full evening of well-rounded, language-driven storytelling that will appeal to anyone.”
The visceral, physical and intimate nature of the play requires considerable chemistry, commitment and trust from the actors, last seen in the Race’s hilarious 2015 production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at the Victoria Theatre. Both have taken their responsibilities in stride as they attempt to convey intense intimacy under the guidance of director Greg Hellems, who staged the Race’s lovely 2016 production of “The Glass Menagerie” at the Loft.
“From the beginning, it’s been about context, communication, consent and choreography,” Johansen said. “Choreographing the intimacy is like choreographing a dance or a fight. In the stage directions, there are four scenes which end mentioning clothes come off and sex is intimate.”
“The intimacy in the scenes is very emotional, but while we’re creating intimacy we’re also able to separate it from its emotionality,” Palacios added. “I don’t know how we would have done it otherwise. It would have been too daunting or too dangerous. But the sexuality of this play is its own character.”
“Besides both being exceptional actors, they already had experienced a degree of intimacy on stage,” Moore reminded. “Their characters, the self-absorbed Masha and her hunky boy-toy Spike, where continually pawing at each other.”
When “Sex with Strangers” premiered, Harvey Weinstein was still a major Hollywood power-player and Matt Lauer brought morning joy to NBC’s “The Today Show.” With the #MeToo movement shaking the social and political landscape across the country, Johansen and Palacios are fully aware that current views of sexual harassment and the treatment of women will factor into how the play is perceived.
In fact, the play’s title refers to Ethan’s website stemming from his tell-all sexcapades of sleeping with a hundred random women over the course of a year.
“I hope everybody sees themselves in Ethan and Olivia,” Palacios said. “There will be times when the audience feels they have to choose sides, but to understand both sides is important. I believe Ethan is haunted by his past and what he’s done, but he wants to change and is changing. He is seeking redemption.”
“This play presents two very strong, dynamic human beings who are vulnerable, strong and bullish,” Johansen said. “Olivia stands up for women. Olivia is not someone who is weak. I hope women will see Olivia as a strong, complicated woman who resonates with various parts of their own lives and their own obstacles.”