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American Stage delivers a smart look at relationships in 'Sex With Strangers'

Novelist Olivia (Carey Urban) and sex blogger Ethan (Ben Williamson) try to reinvent themselves online while navigating a new relationship.
Novelist Olivia (Carey Urban) and sex blogger Ethan (Ben Williamson) try to reinvent themselves online while navigating a new relationship.
Published Jul. 17, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — As might be inferred from the title, Sex With Strangers is about seduction.

The meaning of that word changes over the course of the play, the last of the season at American Stage, from flirtation to persuasion and from right now to something more long-term and contractual. The story by House of Cards writer Laura Eason tracks a whirlwind relationship between two very different sorts of writers. Janis Stevens directs this smart, introspective romance that prompts reflection on how our means of communication in the digital age have altered the messages we relay to each other and who is listening.

Its two acts bookend opposite corners of America, from a cozy bed-and-breakfast during a snow blizzard to the city. Olivia, a serious novelist, favors the rural hideaway in which the play opens. The set by Steven Mitchell lavishes the senses with comfort, contrasting intermittent snow flurries out the window with a fireplace. She is curled up with her manuscript on the leather sofa late at night when someone pounds on the door.

The new arrival, an extroverted man 11 years her junior, is everything she is not. Ethan eventually reveals himself as a well-known author who has parlayed a blog about having sex with strangers into a best-selling book. Olivia, by contrast, has retreated from the outside world, stung by mixed reviews of her first book.

Despite the romantic setting, underscored as if by providence that first night by the loss of Internet access, the bonding between the these characters is not exactly a union of souls. It's more of a prolonged business transaction, albeit a semiconscious one. Olivia, who teaches literature, is more ambitious than she at first appears; whereas Ethan, who has done comparatively little reading, longs for the respectability.

The parameters of this transaction remain fluid because of a third party — the vast and often crude reactions of strangers on the Internet. Their comments on Amazon reviews and beneath blog posts carry a cumulative weight, which is why the tech-savvy Ethan glibly manufactures some of them himself, posing praise (or occasional rebukes to make it all seem realistic).

Their exchange deepens, or reveals itself as shallow, in the second act, which takes place two years later in Olivia's Chicago apartment. The masterful set design, as well as lighting by Joseph Oshry, lay bare in the urban setting what the bed and breakfast had concealed. Light — almost too much of it — stabs the eye in this sleek and spacious lair, its view blocked by a building across the street.

The show moves quickly and smartly as Carey Urban and Ben Williamson combine and combust as Olivia and Ethan. Urban doles out just enough response physically and in her inflections to communicate interest. Williamson asserts his space, stepping so boldly into hers as to invite fear on his behalf. Neither character really knows what they are getting into. There is always that anonymous mass outside, the Internet followers whose enthusiasm or random rancor can make or break careers. It's ugly and unpredictable sometimes, but we keep inviting them in. And the effect of that outside world on the relationship is what makes Sex With Strangers a compelling and highly entertaining experience.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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