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REVIEW — THEATRE

by Hunter Gardner

Closing out The Village Rep’s sixteenth season is Sex With Strangers—a modern day romp through pride, Internet politics, and yes, sex. The promise of the premise here is a romantic collision between a young blogger-turned-author whose name is in front of a half million Twitter followers and a more mature “happy in obscurity” novelist, but the script offers just as many moments of cerebral debate and considerations as it does sensual tango.

Initially meeting at a Michigan writer’s retreat cabin, Ethan and Olivia are snowed in and WiFi-free. This is a nightmare for Ethan who is on deadline to finish the screenplay adaptation of his blog-turned-memoir Sex With Strangers, which documents his sexcapades of sleeping with at least one stranger a week for a year. Meanwhile, the content Olivia is happy to copyedit her second novel by hand. In solitude, these two opposing personalities find a common ground: proof that human nature’s physics are more likely to attract than repel when simply left alone in a room together.

Ethan’s not-so-well-kept secret is that he has arrived here because, through a mutual friend, he knows Olivia is also there. He’s read her first novel (now out of print due to mixed reviews and sub-par sales), and finds it genius. Despite the fact that Ethan is a product of Millennial Internet fame, a manifestation of arrogance—think a modern-day Tucker Max—we see that in his heart of hearts he longs to be a respected writer. In short, Olivia has the talent and he has the audience, both creatively and professionally desiring the component of the other.

While some who attend may gawk at the timestamped language of iPads and Twitter followers and mobile apps, this is where the humor of the first act punches the hardest—and provides some of the most interesting commentary. The fact is, we do live in a world where a re-tweet can change everything, fan groups forming who have slept with Ethan (and “some have even slept with each other”) is unsettlingly believable, and a few fabricated user reviews can help lead to future credibility.

The script wastes little time cutting to the inevitable: within 30 minutes of stage time, Ethan has made his pass on Olivia, who at first is offput. However, he woos her after quoting a passage from her own novel back to her, an interesting moment in asking, “Who here is truly the most arrogant?”

Misaligned status and a teetering lust-or-romance sets up the question of “how far will you go to get what you want?” By the time intermission hits we truly believe that these two are in love, but the pay-off in the second act puts all of that on the line.

Olivia is played by Village Rep ensemble member Liz Duren, and Ethan by James Ketelaar, who the audience may recognize from previous performances with What If? Productions, Midtown Productions, and Woolfe Street Theatre.

Duren has some nice moments, especially with her subtle choices. In the Saturday evening production, picking a speck from her wine glasses, tucking a loose thread from Ethan’s sweater—all stemming from being in the moment with a character. Ketelaar takes on a role that could easily be played with one or two notes and manages to find a full range, creating a character that we roll our eyes at but also feel his internal conflict of macho with a heart of gold. Ketelaar pulls back these layers with gusto and precision, moving the play forward.

What Strangers harps at for audiences young and old is a question of accountability to our genuine selfs. It calls into question the duality of who we are on the Internet versus real life, our past and present lives, hope for who we will become, and to what degree we must atone for those selves, real or falsely perceived. It is in those moments when Sex With Strangers really thrives.

This show will run until August 12th at Woolfe Street Playhouse, 34 Woolfe Street in downtown Charleston. Tickets are $15 – $25 and available at WoolfeStreetPlayhouse.com.


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Posted on August 6, 2017 by Matt Mill.

Categories: Review

Tags: Charleston, James Ketelaar, Liz Duren, Sex With Strangers, Woolfe Street Playhouse

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