Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Sex with Strangers by Laura Eason

Fragments of literary aphorisms
Photos by Brett Boardman

 Sex with Strangers by Laura Eason.  Sydney Theatre Company directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, designed by Tracy Grant Lord, performed by Jacqueline McKenzie (Olivia) and Ryan Corr (Ethan) at Wharf 1, September 28 – November 24, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 3

I have absolutely no quarrel with the directing, design and acting of this new play from Chicago, while the theme – about the generational shift from ‘old-fashioned values’ (like having a printed book on your shelves) to today’s instant gratification and lack of privacy on the internet (and selling cheap e-books with no hard copy, never smelling of ‘library’) – is perfectly valid, worthwhile and up-to-date.

On these grounds I can genuinely encourage you to see Sex with Strangers.

But I do have a quibble with the author.  I present it here, on the blog, and if you wish, you are invited by her to ‘share your thoughts about the play with me, I’d love to hear them.  Through one of the miracles of our time, will reach me in New York.  Call me old fashioned, but I still find that amazing.’

If I may use an Americanism, the play is just too ‘neat’.  I’ll explain more later, but you need to know something of the plot and dramatic structure first.

Each half has five scenes, each introduced with a projection on the backdrop of a quote from a different well-known writer, of the kind that both Olivia and Ethan would like to emulate.  Aphorisms include “The truth will set you free.  But not until it is finished with you” (David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest), or Anaïs Nin’s “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect”.  This is a technique made famous in American theatre by Tennessee Williams’ “Blue Roses” in The Glass Menagerie and more generally based on Brecht’s “literalisation of theatre” to cue the audience in to thinking at a “distance” about the scene they are about to witness.

Ryan Corr as Ethan      Jacqueline McKenzie as Olivia

Though Ethan (at 27) is a stranger to Olivia (in her mid- or maybe later-thirties) when he turns up in the middle of a snowstorm at the otherwise empty retreat where she is holed up trying to write,  he is connected by having had a teacher (as Olivia also is) who went to school with Olivia, and with whom he has become friends.  Olivia’s so far one and only novel could not find a publisher (print, of course) but her old friend had passed a copy to Ethan who has come to find Olivia with a proposition to publish both her first novel and the one she is just completing, for only 10% commission, on his website.  Ethan has already become famous for blogging a year’s sexual encounters with women, one night stands, whose comments and tweets add to his salacious descriptions, attracting sponsors wanting to invest in the e-book and upcoming film Sex with Strangers.

From here on the plot tangles in a way that requires a viewing, but suffice to say Olivia has sex with this stranger Ethan, scene after scene (off stage for the climactic bits, so they can change costumes) throughout the first half, which ends as Olivia, in horror, begins to read Ethan’s book.

After interval, Ethan assumes he has a long-term relationship going.  He publishes her new novel, and destroys her chance of success with a New York publisher famous for “22 Nobel Prize winning titles since their establishment in 1946”.  By the final scene, a year and a half later, she is contemplating marrying a nice teacher who wants children before it is too late for her, when Ethan, now an infamous celebrity, seeks reconciliation.

At last, in the final spotlight in Olivia’s doorway, my quibble comes to light.  She orders Ethan to leave, since she can’t stop herself wanting him sexually despite knowing she could never live with him.  As he leaves he tells her he will be waiting, apparently for ever, in the bar on the corner – his last attempt to manipulate her.  She goes to follow him, turns back, turns to go out again, then stands immobile in the doorway.  Lights fade.  The end.

This is just too neat – it’s a cop out on the part of the author, who leaves us feeling cheated.  We know, of course, that whichever choice Olivia makes will never be entirely satisfactory, but this turns the drama into no more than a superficial guessing game.  Around where I was sitting next to two very Sydney fashionable young women there was an audible exhalation of tension.  Some kind of denouement, I suppose, but I’m glad I wasn’t the actor left there, ghost-like, just fading away. 

As her character Olivia is unable to face up to the possibility of failure, as a writer, so Laura Eason fails to give us a satisfactory conclusion.  Olivia’s and Ethan’s vicious argument earlier in Act Two stands out as the strong point in the drama, while the ending is a let-down.

The issue for me is that the characters are finally seen as agents in a plot contrived to raise something of an intellectual conundrum.  Jocelyn Moorhouse has written in her notes that the drama “on the surface, seems like romantic comedy, but if you dig deeper you find it is about much more.”  Fortunately she took the opportunity to make the comedy work well, and had actors who could carry the script through effectively. 

I thank them for this, especially Jacqueline McKenzie for holding on professionally at the end, and leave you – after you have seen the show, of course – to email the author as you see fit.

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