Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Sex with Strangers” at the Phoenix Theatre (4 stars)

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Brandon Alstott and Angela Plank in Phoenix Theatre’s “Sex with Strangers”

Sex with Strangers opens on Angela Plank as Olivia, a demoralized writer in her late 30s who now supports herself through teaching and is using her spring break to work on a new novel. She is happily ensconced, alone, in an out-of-the-way writers’ retreat house in Michigan, manuscript on lap, wine on the coffee table, and fuzzy socks on—literally and metaphorically—cold feet. Brandon Alstott as Ethan, a hotshot in his late 20s, appears on the doorstep of her safe house, a late check-in due to a blizzard. He’s a modern-day pulp-fiction writer, a blogger-cum-novelist, whose first book, Sex with Strangers, details his year of debauchery, winning him fame and financial booty. While Olivia sees Ethan’s writing as the equivalent of junk food, she is both infuriated and intrigued with his runaway success.

The two represent a gap in literary culture of about 10 years—a gap that many readers can witness in the conflicting views of “J-school” adherents versus the cut-and-paste “news” sites that have become so popular (and lucrative); the difference between a trained writer and a nobody who pounds out misspelled blog entries or fanfiction. The show examines the changing landscapes of writing and publishing (with a brief mention of the role of “professional” critic versus the masses of Internet commenters and planted reviews).

Interestingly, when Olivia, who is a product of more rigorous literary standards, allows herself to explore the new publishing model, she is successful, while the hack Ethan blows it when he tries to be a “real” writer and a respected voice in the literary world. This says something for old-fashioned vetting. While anyone can “write,” not everyone should—yet the Internet and best-seller lists contain a festering stew of glorified wanna-bes.

Plank as Olivia feels unnaturally stiff, but this could be intentional, as her character does come across as having a stick up her butt. Best are her facial expressions in response to some of Ethan’s more infuriating statements. Given the intimate setting in the Phoenix Theatre’s cabaret stage, these kinds of details in a performance add so many nuances to a character. In any case, it comes as a surprise that Olivia’s uptight character would give in to Ethan so quickly—regardless of how smoking hot he is. Alstott as Ethan exudes self-confidence of every kind and demands attention in every way. Yet he is sincere when he describes his goal of producing something of real literary value, and the shedding of the persona “Ethan Strange” after his comeuppance is believable because of those earlier glimpses into his soul.

Director Bill Simmons, Plank, and Alstott created a show that can touch audiences on a personal level but also leaves them thinking about what does happen behind many types of closed doors, including the ones of various forms of media. “Sex with strangers,” after all, is a good metaphor for the intimacy that happens between reader and writer. Whom do you trust? The swaggering nobody or someone who has a few miles on them? At the same time, staunch adherence to tradition can also leave you stagnant.

  • Phoenix Theatre
  • Through April 9
  • Thursday, 7 p.m. $27
  • Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m. $33
  • Sunday, 2 p.m. $27
  • Second Sunday March 26: The discussion will take place immediately following the performance. Come join cast and designers for a lively Q&A and gain a unique perspective of the show!
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freelance editor and writer

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