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Sex With Strangers – Citadel Theatre
Two very different writers meet, by chance, at a rural snowbound writers retreat in Michigan. Olivia Lago, an attractive, 40-something author of real, honest-to-goodness books, who swoons under the spell and smell of a great novel, is curled up on a couch with a blanket and a bottle of wine. While proofing a manuscript for her new novel, Ethan Kane, a hunky, 20-something young blog writer, unexpectedly arrives in the middle of the night, looking for his room. Olivia is, at first cautious. Then, as the wine and Ethan’s unabashed charm seduces her, Olivia finds herself drawn to this brash, self-confident Millennial. After kicking off his boots, raiding the kitchen for something to eat and taking over Olivia’s couch and bottle of wine, it suddenly occurs to Ethan that he may be, as he puts it, “acting like a dick.”
After throwing a fit because he can’t retrieve his iPhone emails or texts, and coming to realize that the wifi is down, and there’s not even a TV in the place, Ethan soon realizes that he and Olivia will have to make their own fun. But what makes Olivia fall for this young man? And why does Ethan put the moves on this “older woman”? Olivia, who would appeal more to a cultured, educated scholar, learns that this guy is a huge fan of her first book. Despite it now being out of print, the novel was given to Ethan by a mutual friend, who’s also a big supporter of Olivia’s work. When Ethan calls her book “brilliant” she’s hooked.
Ethan confesses that he’s also a writer, albeit a blogger, but who’s written the highly popular, yet extremely raunchy autobiographical eBook entitled, Sex With Strangers. Ethan composed it under the pseudonym of Ethan Strange, and is currently in discussions with an LA studio to turn it into a movie. Thus it is that Olivia becomes seduced, not just by the sexy, shirtless stud making all the right moves, but by the commercial success that she longs for. Ethan, in turn, lusts after this talented writer’s literary talent, as well as her body, her brains and her desperate need for a kindred spirit.
New York-based playwright Laura Eason is best known for her four seasons as an Emmy Award-nominated writer on Netflix’s “House of Cards.” This two-hander is a love story for intelligent theatergoers who’ve pondered the bleak future of bookstores and real, paperbound books in favor of today’s electronic tomes, tweets and blogs. Ms. Eason’s romantic drama was originally developed and premiered to high acclaim at Steppenwolf Theatre. In the Citadel’s intimate production, skillfully guided and kept on track by freelance director Scott Westerman, the stakes seem even higher. With the actors not more than a few feet away, their story is as immediate as ever.
Westerman’s cast is excellent. Equity actress Nina O’Keefe, seen recently in Steppenwolf’s “Mary Page Marlow,” gives a bravura performance as Olivia. The Jeff Award-nominated actor brings eloquence and an honesty and toughness to this role that skillfully hides her character’s vulnerability and insecurity. Ms. O’Keefe can command the stage as she demonstrates in Act II, when the tables begin to turn. Rich Holton is charming, yet macho, as Ethan. He seems at home with all the fast dialogue, comfortable with the situation and makes it easy for audiences to see why Olivia so quickly falls for him. Sometimes Holton swallows his lines, making it difficult to understand everything he’s saying; but he more than makes up for that with his body language. Together this couple make believable music together.
The script’s second act holds a few problems with the way things ultimately pan out. But the talented cast and Mr. Westerman’s skillful direction wins out, smoothing over all the bumps. For theatergoers easily offended by four-letter words, or some tame, onstage love-making, this might not be their cup of tea. But for smart audiences who enjoy watching two intelligent characters spar, attract each other and learn from their experiences, this is the play for them.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 30-March 4 by Citadel Theatre, 300 S. Waukegan Rd., Lake Forest, IL.
Tickets are available in person at the theatre box office, by calling 847-735-8554 or by going to www.CitadelTheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.
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