“Sex With Strangers,” a comedy about a coupling with complications, stars two performers – Anna Gunn, Bryan Cranston’s wife Skyler in “Breaking Bad,” and Billy Magnussen, the boy-toy Spike in Christopher Durang’s Tony-winning “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” – whose previous roles left such a strong impression that there was a question in my mind whether audiences could accept their portraying different characters.
Apparently so: The two-character play written by Linda Eason and directed by David Schwimmer (still best-known as the actor in Friends) is artfully constructed and well-acted, a hit with critics and with theatergoers as well; it has been extended through August 31st.
But are the characters they are portraying that different from their breakthrough roles? All four characters have something in common, and it has to do with love – or, more precisely, it has nothing to do with love.
Ethan and Olivia meet during a blizzard at a bed and breakfast in Northern Michigan. Slowly, it’s revealed that the encounter is no accident. Olivia, approaching 40 years old, makes a living as a teacher but she wrote and published a novel years ago that got mixed reviews and vanished; she became so discouraged that, although she has finally written a second novel, she now considers her writing a hobby. Ethan, in his twenties, is a successful writer, with two best-selling books, based on his blog, all of which have the same title as the play – and are about his sexual conquests. It began as a dare from some of his friends to pick up a different woman every week for a year, and grew into a franchise.
But Ethan has serious literary ambitions. He took a class with an award-winning writer named Ahmit, who, a friend and former classmate of Olivia’s, gave him Olivia’s first book to read as one of his favorite novels; the book became one of Ethan’s favorite as well. It was (the unseen) Ahmit who also suggested this bed and breakfast. Ethan called up and found out that Olivia was staying there. In other words, he sought her out.
She initially finds him annoying. In part, this seems to be a generational difference, as indicated by their contrasting reaction to the Internet connection being down because of the storm: Olivia is delighted (“No distractions.”); Ethan is devastated (“People will think I’m dead. And what if you have to look something up?”)
It takes only until the end of the first scene, however, before Olivia is seduced. Ethan shows himself to be generous and sexy – and his quoting a line from her novel to her nails it. Besides, the Internet connection is down; there is nothing else to do.
Given that this is a play with only two characters, and the seduction occurs in the first of nine scenes, it’s clear that this will not just be a one-night stand. Is this realistic between these two characters? Ethan, although the author of the Sex with Strangers franchise, insists it is; the Ethan who is drawn to Olivia, he says, is the “real” Ethan, a different Ethan than the sex-crazed, callous dude persona of his blog and books. Besides, he says, he’s changed.
Does the continuing connection make sense from Olivia’s point of view as well? Why not? He’s an attractive young man, and besides, he seems determined to help her literary career. He helps her get exposure for her writing, introducing her to his agent, among other things.
But he also wants to feature her writing in the app he’s developing in order to prove he’s a literary heavyweight.
And here is where the playwright subtly demonstrates her insight into modern life. Eason is unlike the writers of many romantic comedies – a genre that “Sex With Strangers” resembles, but ultimately (and to its credit) doesn’t entirely fit: The playwright supplies motives for the characters’ continuing connection that aren’t just an undefined “love.” One can take love out of the equation, and the trajectory of their relationship would still make sense, based only on animal attraction and self-interest.
Now, consider their earlier roles. Spike’s interest in the movie star Sasha seems transparent; he hopes she’ll help his career. Magnussen’s new character Ethan is smarter but arguably no less calculating. I’ll admit here that Spike casts a strong enough shadow that I had trouble picturing Ethan as having serious literary ambitions, but if I can suspend my disbelief about his ambitions, his character makes sense without my having to suspend my disbelief about his devotion to true love.
Look again at “Breaking Bad.” From the very first episode, it’s a question whether any real love binds Walter and Skyler White. Their sex is comically perfunctory; their other interactions long ago have become a matter of unconsidered routine. Yes, Walter calls Skyler “the love of my life,” but it becomes clear over the arc of the show that he is using his self-declared “love” of his family to justify his descent into vicious gangster – and any love that Skyler had for him has evolved into a matter of survival, fear and disgust. Interestingly, in the first episode of “Breaking Bad,” we learn that Skyler has a concrete connection to Gunn’s new character Olivia: Skyler aspires to be a writer.
One can be taken with “Sex With Strangers” – the wit of the dialogue, the charm of the characters, and the chemistry of the two performers – without ever considering what the playwright might be saying about the ways ambition and self-interest have come to replace love, or are at least indistinguishable from it.
Sex With Strangers
At Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street
By Laura Eason
Directed by David Schwimmer; sets by Andromache Chalfant; costumes by ESosa; lighting by Japhy Weideman; sound by Fitz Patton.
Cast: Anna Gunn (Olivia) and Billy Magnussen (Ethan).
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including one intermission.
Tickets: $89 – $125
Sex With Strangers is set to run through August 31.