We all have parts we play. In real life: the quirky office mate, the fastidious notetaker, the Prius driving recycling queen. In web life: the glib blogger, the casually cool weekend bartender, the occasional wanderlust. And then, in our romantic encounters, a melding of the two, or, perhaps, a third persona altogether. But when the internet's out, the company slim, and we must come face to face with ourselves, are we finally genuine? Or are we still playing pretend?
These are the questions that playwright Laura Eason explores in her two-hander, Sex with Strangers. "It was hot property," says Woolfe Street artistic and producing director Keely Enright. "It was one of those shows that was interesting, smart, sexy; it kind of fit our whole vibe for the season."
The play takes place in Woolfe Street's black box space, adjacent to the main stage area. The set consists of a couple of pieces of furniture, a wall, and two people attempting to reconcile the tensions between their persons and their personas — Olivia is a 40-something disillusioned novelist, Ethan is a 20-something uber succesful blogger. Olivia is unplugged, Ethan is constantly tuned into the world of social media. They're in close quarters in a remote Michigan Bed & Breakfast, and between the lack of internet connection and dearth of human distraction, they're drawn inexplicably together. "My character has a novel that has come out and failed, so she has sort of retreated into her own little world and has come to this cabin as a getaway to focus. She does this just for her," says Liz Duren, the vivacious, petite brunette playing Olivia. "Then Ethan comes here and disrupts this. He pulls her out of her comfort zone."
Ethan, a fresh-faced charmer and infamous social media maverick, is played by James Ketelaar. His boyish sincerity balances out the character's ostensible muse, a Mr. Tucker Max, the real-life author and public speaker who became famous for his drinking and sexual encounters, captured in a series of books and blogs that paint his conquests in a not-so-flattering light. "After we got through the first read-through of the script, I said 'Oh, this is Tucker Max,'" says Ketelaar. "It's nice having such a specific person to play off of. To get into the head of. You find ways to relate to a character, even if it's a character that has done things that are deplorable.
I wouldn't be writing the things that Tucker Max has written. But you have to find those avenues to relate ... Even if you're playing someone gross or evil, everyone's the hero of their own narrative. You have to find those 'Oh, this is how I might get myself into these kinds of situations.'" Ethan may be Max in his heyday, horny and prolific, fiercely loved and hated by readers. But now Max is 41, married with a family. "If you know Tucker Max, he's disgusting," says Duren. "But the neat thing about the show is, we see that he has this soft side. Olivia is cut off from the internet, she doesn't know who is he. So she falls in love with him, then finds out about his public persona. It's neat to see her grapple with, 'Wait, these are the coattails I'm riding on?' She wants to be with him but doesn't want to be with him. Do they do what they want? Maintain their integrity? It's a fun question."
The motivations of the novelist, who at first was seeking solace in a space all her own, but then is pulled into this intense, sexy, intimate rapport with a younger, callow, but charming blogger, are unclear. And they're supposed to be. "These two people wouldn't meet under normal circumstances," says Enright. "I don't know what her [Eason's] motivations were for the what if scenario, their different backgrounds, writing styles, age difference ... If they had walked into the same Starbucks, these are not the two people that would've sat down together." If Olivia met Ethan in a busy cafe, or on a street corner, or at the bar, would he be the same Ethan? How much of a person is tied to who they say they are, especially when they're known for blogging about their raunchy escapades? Is Olivia the same vulnerable, wistful poet she is in seclusion when she's at her day job, teaching at the front of a classroom?
The play asks what happens when you look at someone, at their hard-won patina. What happens when you look a little closer? Can you forge a connection, even with the what-ifs and blurry in-betweens? "The play forces you to deal with the human condition. You're still dealing with human people," says Enright. "It's really very sweet, whatever it is, it's a love story. That's the only thing, for me as an audience member, that gives it interest. To watch the characters and see where they go in their relationship over time. Good, bad, or indifferent, that's ultimately what it is."