Laura Eason's play is a smart two-hander about love and literary ambition, the nature of identity and the difficulties of self-reinvention in a digital age that has confused our sense of the boundaries between private and public, authentic and fabricated. Passion ignites between an unlikely couple who find themselves trapped for the weekend by a snow storm in a remote Michigan writers' retreat – alone and bereft of internet access. The fact that the wi-fi is down matters far more to him than to her. Olivia (Emilia Fox), a novelist in her late thirties with high-minded aspirations, has barely deigned to brush shoulders with the online world. Scalded by the reaction to her first book (which was scuppered by a misleading chick-lit cover), she has withdrawn into obscurity and uncompromising purism as she works on her latest novel, horrified at the thought of ever subjecting her writing to “a bunch of anonymous strangers saying horrible, misspelled things about my work.”
In a twist that is very slightly implausible, it turns out that her under-appreciated first book has a devoted fan in the handsome, virile Ethan (Theo James) who has even tracked Laura down to this spot. Her junior by a decade, Ethan has savvily turned himself into an internet phenomenon. He's achieved lucrative bad-boy fame with a blog chronicling his sexual conquests of girls picked up in “the old-fashioned way” in bars, the best-selling spin-off books and the movie option. He knows how to exploit the publicity value in the competitive exhibitionism that cyber culture fosters. There's even a popular online club formed by the women he's slept with (“some of them have slept with each other”) who write about what he wrote about them. This was often merciless a fact hardly mitigated by his having knowingly adopted the persona of an asshole for his 'Sex With Strangers' blog.
The irony is that Ethan is as frustrated as Olivia. He's working on a book and wants to rebrand himself as a literary novelist. “Are you quoting me?” she asks in amused disbelief when Ethan moves in on her, uttering the deathless line “I felt like a ruined city...whose loss will be built over and forgotten”. Cue passionate kisses and the first of the bouts of intercourse that punctuate the play. A gauze curtain is brought down each time and we see only the raunchy preliminaries before a black-out and then raised dim light on of them alone post-coitally. The effect manages erotic without prurience.
Peter Dubois' production is well-judged throughout and it's very finely acted by Fox and James who have witty, sparring sexual chemistry and really make you care about a relationship that, less attractively handled, could come across as too schematic both in the intergenerational clash of assumptions it exemplifies and in the reversal of fortunes that it experiences. The play keeps several thought-provoking questions nagging as the scene shifts to Olivia's Chicago apartment. Ethan may believe that he can cleanly disentangle himself from his old online self but how far can Olivia, who overhears him relapsing into repellent misogyny in a joshing phone call to his manager, trust this? And who is using whom worse, as he angles to promote his new literary app with her latest book and she finally surrenders to her suppressed ambition, capitalising on Ethan's talent for creating an online buzz and his connection with top agents? The play, though never becomes a Neil Labute-like exercise in dramatising heartless machiavellian manipulation. There's a saving uncertainty – and a vulnerability to each other – in these characters that the performances bring out beautifully.
Eason is one of the writers on House of Cards and the script has snap, though there are some squelchy moments (as when Ethan rhapsodises about the heroine of Olivia's latest book “Her inner-life is, like, blindingly vivid”) and the odd thudding speech that sounds like authorial notes on the character only half-developed into natural dialogue (as when Olivia nails her central dilemma with essayistic neatness: “how do I make myself hard enough to withstand all the bad but stay soft enough to still be the writer I want to be?”) In general, though, Sex With Strangers is in Hampstead Theatre's admirable tradition of finding literate plays on up-to-date literary concerns.
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