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Did you know there’s a perfume designed to make you smell like a book? There is. Honest. It’s called Paper Passion, and one cryptic review says that if you use it over like a million years and you’re lucky, you might end up smelling like a library.

Olivia, one of two characters in Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers, would buy every bottle if she could, on the way to the aroma of an old tome or two — such is her admitted intoxication with the odor of the ancient printed page amid its arduous path to the light of day.

You get that indication from her apartment interior in this current San Diego Repertory Theatre entry, lined as it is with a gajillion titles at her immediate disposal. She’s a relatively unknown fortyish writer who writes for the contemplative inner joy, and she’s smertzing fellow author Ethan (ten years her junior), who’s made a killing chronicling his sex life for all cyberspace to see. He’s gotten the requisite network of connections out of his job, so it’s only a matter of time before he figures into the prospects for Olivia’s success.

Olivia and Ethan (Lisel Gorell-Getz and Connor Sullivan) are trying to get to the same place; they just can’t agree on how. Photo by Daren Scott.

Or at least that’s the theory. It’s also the reason this show falls so unerringly flat. If you’re a voyeur, you’ll probably like the production — but true theatergoers prefer a piece with discernible subtext and unforced exposition. Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg does what she can with her cast’s obvious talent, but she can’t be expected to rewrite Eason’s ideas. The theatrical divisions of labor just aren’t all that flexible.

Things happen fast after Olivia and Ethan first meet in a snowbound Michigan cabin — bad weather has knocked out phone and Internet connections, so what’s left on the agenda for two attractive and sexualy healthy strangers, let alone two authors with a boatload of stories to share? Between boinks, Ethan has sneaked a peek at Olivia’s latest literary effort; she’s incensed at his brazenness but cools off when he elaborates on ways to remarket her first book, whose sales sank to the bottom of the Pacific.

… [W]hy do those differences fuel such prickliness between two basically intelligent people?

As all dating relationships do (or should), this one yields to a bigger picture as the principals’ tempers flare. It’s up to us to decide for ourselves whether they part ways — but Eason seems to come down on the side of their enduring togetherness. Lights out.

The script is a lot of other things, too, such as an account of the digital age’s effect on self-concept (Ethan’s narcissism and misogyny have bumped exponentially amid his blogospheric success) and a look at the fine line between solitude and isolation (writers need their aloneness, of course, but Olivia seems to have taken hers to an unhealthy level; she’s ready to jump Ethan’s bones without so much as a “how’s your mom”).

What it isn’t is a big deal. The principals shack up, fight and exploit the permutations of both elements without much between them except the intertwining of an avocation they already pursue. They’re trying to get to the same place, just in markedly different ways — so why do those differences fuel such prickliness between two basically intelligent people?

Who knows. And Eason won’t tell, probably because she can’t.

Playwright Laura Eason needs a lot bigger story arc before she has a play.

Connor Sullivan’s Ethan is a histrionic marker — presciently, the actor has given Ethan an unsettlingly toothy leer amped by misplaced success. Ethan literally can’t keep his hands off Olivia, and his reach for her is an oversolicitous half-grope, the bar-none trademark of virtually all single twentysomething males. Lisel Gorell-Getz has a fair Olivia going (the character is awfully quick at betraying her thoughts, a surefire sign of personal loneliness), but her body language inexplicably reflects someone nowhere near ready for middle age.

Set designer Brian Redfern has captured a nice lived-in look to Olivia’s apartment; he should save some of that idea for the cabin. Costumer Anastasia Pautova is up against two big character arcs late in the second act, and she dresses them really well. Lights and sound are the theater’s hard-science disciplines, and Anthony Jannuzzi and Kevin Anthenill savor them like the scientists they are.

I have an author friend who works the “chick-lit” genre — she’s a USA Today bestseller and at one point was the target of speculation surrounding a movie option on one of her six novels. She’d hate this play, or at the very least she’d slap Olivia around for stopping short of a goal on the strength of a dubious boyfriend’s savvy in the sack. She’d also say Eason needs a far bigger story arc to justify all that transpires within two truly authorial minds.

And as usual, she’d be right.

This review is based on the opening-night performance of March 1. Sex with Strangers runs through March 19 at the Lyceum Theatre Space, 79 Horton Plaza downtown. $40-$67. 819 544-1000, sdrep.org.

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Lyceum Theatre
Work 79 Horton Plaza San Diego CA 92101 USA Work Phone: (619) 544-1000 Website: Lyceum Theatre website
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Martin Jones Westlin

Martin Jones Westlin

Martin Jones Westlin, principal at editorial consultancy Words Are Not Enough and La Jolla Village News editor emeritus, has been a theater critic and editor/writer for 25 of his 47 years... More...

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