When Olivia meets Ethan in the new Off Broadway drama Sex With Strangers, it’s a clash of generations as well as genders. Olivia is a 40ish English professor polishing the thick paper manuscript to her long-delayed second novel. Ethan is a 28-year-old blogger?cum?best-selling wunderkind who is trying to move past his Tucker Max-like reputation for writing about his many drunken one-night stands. One blizzardy night, they find themselves snowed in together at a remote, wifi-less Michigan B&B—and despite the odds, the sparks fly.
There is no reason that playwright Laura Eason’s frankly sitcommy premise should work. And yet it does, thanks to fluid direction by David Schwimmer (yes, that David Schwimmer) and charmingly forthright performances by the two-member cast. (The show plays through Aug. 31 at Off Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre.) Anna Gunn, an Emmy winner for Breaking Bad, projects both Olivia’s outward strength as well as the telling cracks of vulnerability. And Billy Magnussen, a Tony nominee last year for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, delivers a portrayal of millennial alpha-bro entitlement that is every bit as nuanced and chiseled as his impressive abs. He’s particularly strong in articulating the youthful addiction to emblems of youth culture like smartphones. ”It’s not that I have to make a call,” he says upon learning of his off-the-grid state in wintry Michigan, ”but, I mean, my phone isn’t working!”
Ethan is a cad who’s used to being seen as a cad (”People say totally horrifying things about me—to me!—all the time”) but he’s also a flatterer—and he’s actually read Olivia’s first novel, whose polite but unrapturous reception prompted a self-imposed literary exile and a long sojourn abroad. And she’s smart despite being a bit of a technophobe, but she’s also not above a reckless romantic fling or reigniting her own long-dormant ambitions for literary fame. When considering adopting a gender-neutral pseudonym, she wryly observes, ”Well, being a woman is always a huge advantage as an artist and I’d like to see how I do without that leg up.”
Despite initial appearances, they are oddly well-matched. Eason’s second act, set in Olivia’s apartment (the spare, well-appointed set is designed by Andromache Chalfant), grinds its wheels with a few too many sudden reversals and betrayals. In the end, she doesn’t quite know whether to keep her couple together or tear them asunder. But a muffed ending doesn’t dilute the overall success of Sex With Strangers, which boasts two lively, lusty, and fully lived-in characters. B+