Michael Brunk

“Sex with Strangers” at Burien Actor’s Theatre

Play Review

by Tim Takechi

Baby, it’s cold outside. Not only in the real world, but also in the world of “Sex with Strangers” at Burien Actor’s Theatre, which opens on February 10 and runs for four weekends until March 5.
The opening scene of “Sex with Strangers” is reminiscent of a typical dime store romance novel: A down-on-her-luck novelist is curled up inside a rural Michigan bed-and-breakfast reading the manuscript to her latest novel which may or may never be published. All of a sudden Olivia (Alexandra Novotny) hears a car arrive and footsteps trudging through the snow.
When the door opens, she is greeted by Ethan (J. Woody Lotts), a 20-something hipster dude who looks out of place and looking for trouble. After the usual round of awkward introductions, these two strangers realize that they’re not quite strangers after all. Not only do they share a mutual friend, but they learn that they’re both novelists, though their professional trajectories couldn’t be more different.
Olivia’s first novel was published many years ago through traditional avenues and received nearly no readership. Ethan, on the other hand, is a typical Millennial who’s earned his fame and fortune in the most Millennial way possible: He became a social media star. Ethan is a blogger who writes about his “sexploitations” with hundreds of anonymous women whom he meets at bars, clubs, and parties. His first novel, aptly titled “Sex with Strangers,” is exploitative trash that isn’t art but earns him a steady income. Olivia finds Ethan’s life’s choices to be sexist and demeaning. Ethan insists he’s changed and seeks to become a “serious writer.”
As it turns out, Ethan is one of the few human beings on planet Earth who actually read Olivia’s book. And he loved it. He loved it so much that he fell in love with her. As expected, the cold weather outside doesn’t let up and, well, two people alone together in a cramped space with no functioning Internet connection (oh, the horrors!) have only a limited number of activities at their disposal.
Eventually Olivia and Ethan do the deed – many times, in fact – and become fast friends. Ethan later encourages Olivia to get out of her funk and turn to e-publishing to get her writing exposed to the world. Olivia, a Gen X-er who feels stuck in perpetual mediocrity, craves the feeling of holding a paper copy of her novel and is skeptical about the prospects of e-readers and going around the major publishing houses. Ethan persuades her that print is a dinosaur and that e-publishing is the meteor. Reluctantly, Olivia gives Ethan permission to “republish” her book for the modern Internet/Twitter/Facebook/Amazon age.
“Sex with Strangers” is a wonderfully written comedy-drama about two wounded souls who come from different generations, different perspectives, and different pathways that led them to this fateful meeting. Olivia’s meekness and deep insecurities are challenged by Ethan’s young, brash, and entrepreneurial spirit. Ethan realizes through his attraction to Olivia that his hedonistic lifestyle isn’t just what feeds his bank account; it’s become his crutch that allows him to delay adulthood.
The two actors in this two-character play are dynamic and generate great chemistry. Novotny gives us a woman whose skepticism – which borders on pessimism – prevents her from channeling her creativity to better use. Lotts delivers a naturalistic performance as a Kardashian-esque Internet celebrity who desperately wants to be taken seriously as an artist. In many ways, Olivia and Ethan need each other. As the story unfolds, the audience is captivated with finding out who needs the other more. Our two fine actors joyfully take us on this ride and rarely hit a false note.
Directors Rochelle Flynn and Maggie Larrick team up once again to bring us their usual splash of humanity mixed with humor and a little bit of the unexpected. The sets by Albie Clementi make us feel right at home, as the story shifts to Olivia’s apartment in the second act. As we approach Valentine’s Day, “Sex with Strangers” is the ideal romantic comedy-drama that will give you much more than you were expecting.
“Sex with Strangers” runs from February 10 through March 5 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices range from $7 to $20. Students get it for just $10. For tickets, special deals and other information, go to burienactorstheatre.org or call (206) 242-5180. Burien Actor’s Theatre is located at 14501 4th Ave. SW, Burien, WA 98166.
The show is recommended for audiences 13+ due to adult themes and language.

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