Sex With Strangers, by Laura Eason. Directed by Stephen Nachamie. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Ben Williamson and Jenny Strassburg; photo: supplied
"At least be a part of the conversation."
Carey Urban and Ben Williamson in American Stage's production; photo: internet
Pornography is in the eye of the beholder, or the mind, or in seat D-103 at Capital Repertory Theatre on Wednesday evening at Laura Eason's play "Sex With Strangers." Every time things heated up between Olivia and Ethan, played by Jenny Strassburg and Ben Williamson during the two hour play the woman in that seat would hoot, holler, gyrate up and down and pump her right arm up and down. I don't know where she thought she was, but her companion in seat D-101 was there with her all the way. For them this rather sophisticated comedy was very much closer to the real thing than it seemed to be for the rest of us in the audience. And when Olivia, temporarily, gave Ethan his walking papers the two women hooted and squalked and cheered her on for her feminist values.
Sometimes theater gets that real for those of us watching. Sometimes a play is still just a play. In the hands of the cast of this production in Albany, NY the play is a very good play and the people in it play for what some may think is real. The theater work is by Laura Eason, a television writer who has hit it big with this piece. More than fifty American productions and a London presentation have preceded this one. Ben Williamson, who plays Ethan Strange here, has played the part before, most notably at American Stage in Tampa, Florida. He should be hired often for he plays the role extremely well.
Williamson is handsome and compelling. You can feel the heat he generates, even from row E. There is a sexy aspect to him that belongs along the lines of the young Marlon Brando in "Streetcar Named Desire" back in the late 1940s. It's not that the lights brighten as he moves across the stage removing his shirt, her shirt, his pants, her boots. That's the lighting designer at work. It's not that his voice seems to resonate through the elevated platforms that hold the audience's seats. That's the sound designer's work. It's not that his catlike motion is the Michigan winter's sultry and seductive come-on. Well, in that case, maybe it is. But truly and well, Williamson is a compelling actor who brings Ethan to ultra-life through his good looks, his acting chops, his rich vocal tone, and his physical control of the stage. This is a very winning performance even though the character is vain and vulgar and ultimately appealing through his sincerity and his honesty. The actor takes the man he plays very seriously and the result is a totally believable character whom you alternately hate and envy.
The woman in his life, eleven years his senior, is played with total honesty by Jenny Strassburg. She doesn't look older, but her character clearly has a developed sense of character that places her in a different strata from her unsought beau. Both are authors - he very successful with a book about indiscriminate sex, and she less so with a romantic novel displaying high talent for imagery. Their poetic combination is literary dynamite that threatens to explode periodically and finally does do just that ripping them apart and ending their romance. If possession is nine tenths of the law, Ethan's desire to possess Olivia and her creations allows him to overplay his role in her life and Strassburg really comes into her own as she plays the second act scenes with a legal action of her own. The actress is strong in this sequence of scenes and her strength pulls us along with her. Williamson's Ethan may be blown off, but we are blown away by the way Strassburg handles the situation.
Some of the best moments in their performances may well have been perfectly orchestrated by director Stephen Nachamie who has spared nothing in his creation of the not very subtle sexual tension between his actors. No matter how resistant they are to each other's charms, they inevitably fall into love-making and sex at every psychological turn of the script. Nachamie does not spare a single prop or set piece in creating the relationship that grows between them. It was great fun to watch the back and forth, the in and out of personality-ripping trauma. Director and actors together created a visual experience that will not be easily forgotten.
As good as the play and as good as the performances, the set by Sebastian Panfili provides the perfect framework for this play. Scott Stauffer's sound design supplies the emotional pounding and Bob Denton's exterior projections heighten the pleasure as well (watch the second act windows). Costume Designer Vanessa Leuck shows us more about the character through the clothing than we see when they shuck their clothes.
From beginning to end this excellent play is given an ideal production with the perfect people involved. Capital Rep continues its unbroken record for high quality theater and this is a play not to be missed.
Sex With Strangers plays at Capital Repertory Theare, 111 N. Pearl Street, Albany, NY through October 15. For information and tickets go to their website at capitalrep.org, or call the box office at 518-445-7469.