Surprisingly literary “Sex With Strangers” returns to ProArts stage
With only a handful of venues dedicated to live performances, and show dates sometimes scheduled months apart, Maui is a bit of a theatrical desert. If you enjoy the theater, you’ve got to be willing to roll the dice on community productions, hoping for an entertaining, well-told story, and prepared to overlook a few flaws. So, when my latest roll of the dice found me seated in Kihei’s ProArts Playhouse for a play with a rather suggestive title—about which I knew absolutely nothing—it was a delightful surprise to enjoy a performance which was both nuanced and authentic, from a script far more literary than the racy title would suggest.
Written by Laura Eason and directed by Ricky Jones, “Sex With Strangers” tells the story of a May-September romance between two writers who meet not-quite-accidentally at a snowed-in bed and breakfast in rural Michigan. Olivia is a sophisticated novelist pushing 40 whose career is waning, so she’s resorted to teaching to pay the bills as she struggles to publish her latest book, hesitant to the point of paralysis in the wake of a past failure.
Ethan became internet-famous blogging about all the women he had slept with in his 20s, and then parlayed that fame into a series of best-selling books titled “Sex With Strangers.” The characters’ exact ages aren’t given, but from clues in the dialogue, we can discern that he’s about a decade younger than she.
Petite, milky-skinned redhead Lin McEwan, 42, looks a bit young for the role of the older woman, but she does a good job of establishing the age difference through condescension and sarcasm. Her disdain for Ethan’s soft-core pulp writing—and the misogynistic public persona that goes with it—is palpable.
Ethan is played by handsome, hipster-bearded Dexter Hostetter, 33, who walks a fine line between being cocky and charming, and wins over the audience by leaning just slightly towards the latter.
We all feel for him a little bit when he discovers that the Wi-Fi is down due to the storm and declares, “Oh, no! People will think I’m dead!” With no way to text or post anything online (spoiler alert), he promptly seduces Olivia by revealing that he is a huge fan of her work and only made the B&B reservation because he knew she was staying there. (Stalker alert!)
The dialogue is sharp and witty and the two play off each other well. The blocking is intentionally static during the first act, with almost the entire opening scene taking place on a couch that dominates the tiny stage. (The actors make better use of this space as the story progresses.) The attraction they both feel unfolds through body language and mild flirtation over a bottle (or two) of wine, culminating in a long, passionate—if slightly awkward—kiss. Fade to black as they disappear into the bedroom.
This is, after all, a play about sex. It’s in the title. But McEwan makes a little skin go a long way, draping straps off her shoulder and showing just enough leg to titillate as she sprawls herself seductively across the couch. In the interest of equal time, Hostetter plays the ensuing scene entirely in boxer briefs.
We quickly find that there is a pattern of the two falling into some sort of sensual embrace as the lights dim at the end of each scene, but these feel more natural as the characters grow closer. In the darkness between scenes, a disembodied voice reads cryptic quotations from literature by the likes of William Forrester, Leo Tolstoy, Jamaica Kincaide, and Marguerite Duras, lending this sexy little play a sense of scholarly dignity.
McEwan and Hostetter do an exquisite job of developing their relationship as time goes by, complete with its complications, deceit, and betrayal. (Vaguely reminiscent of Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn in “Same Time Next Year.”) More importantly, they engender our empathy so that we genuinely care about them by the time their love affair threatens to unravel. Rule number one—you can’t win over your audience unless they’re rooting for the protagonist.
In fairness, this isn’t really community theater. These are paid professionals, hence the name ProArts. (In fact, McEwan is also the theater’s executive director.) So, the bar ought to be set fairly high. But consider the challenge of acting in a play with only two characters. (Think “Sleuth” or “My Dinner With Andre.”) Instead of a page or two to memorize, both actors appear in every single scene, without a break. And these two performed their parts flawlessly, kept the audience engaged, and even made us laugh.
Let’s hope that their lines are still as fresh when “Sex With Strangers” returns by popular request for one weekend only, Sept. 8, 9, and (pending sufficient demand) 10 at 7:30 p.m. with a Sunday matinée at 2:00 p.m. on Sept. 11, ProArts Playhouse, 1280 S. Kihei Rd. in the Azeka Place shopping center. Recommended for ages 18 and up due to mature content. Ten percent discount given for kamaʻāina on Thursday night. For tickets, visit ProArtsMaui.com.
Dan Collins is an award-winning actor and community theater veteran whose most memorable role was playing Aslan the Great Lion in Actors’ Theater for Children’s production of “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.”