INDIALOGUE

Sex, Blogs, and eBooks
Laura Eason’s Sex With Strangers

When Laura Eason’s play premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, she was asked to contribute to the company’s blog, not surprisingly, to promote a piece that delves into the intricacies of intimacy—and self-promotion—in a cyber age. And yet, as she admits in that posting: “I am afraid of this blog. … Although I have plenty of things to say about a great many things, I feel no urge to impress them upon people outside my circle of friends and acquaintances in any way beyond my playwriting.”

Billy Magnussen and Anna Gunn in Sex with Strangers. Photo: Robert Ascroft.

But with her play, Eason writes that she was determined to “delve into thematic territory that isn’t always comfortable or polite but is in fact revealing and raw,” giving the resulting work a title, Sex With Strangers, that was “totally appropriate for the piece, but that I knew I’d be a little embarrassed telling my dad.”

This summer, Eason’s play gets its New York premiere at Second Stage Theatre in a production directed by David Schwimmer, who is a co-founder of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company where Eason is a longtime ensemble member and served as artistic director for six years. The cast members of the hot two-hander are Anna Gunn, the Emmy Award-winning Skyler White of “Breaking Bad,” and Billy Magnussen, who earned a Tony nomination last year for his Speedo-clad Spike in Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

The characters—Olivia and Ethan—are both writers. She’s a 39-year-old novelist still licking the wounds of negative reviews from her misunderstood and poorly promoted debut; and he’s a 28-year-old media whore who began with a salacious blog, which led to some bestselling Sex With Strangers books, and now has a Hollywood movie in the making.

The two have a supposedly random meet at a B&B in rural Michigan, isolated by a March snowstorm and no Internet access. The fact that he’s actually stalking her—and trying to write something serious for once—and that she’s spent so much time with her Italian ex-lover that she missed his blog and books, definitely adds spice to this otherwise oil-and-water combo. More than one scene of this play ends with the suggestive stage direction: Clothes begin to come off. Sex is imminent. Not to hard to imagine, with Gunn and Magnussen acting it out.

I caught up with Eason while she was in the midst of rehearsals for this summer romance, which she describes as “very naked in a lot of ways.” Although she will neither confirm nor deny if there is actual nudity in the show: “Honestly, we don’t know yet! People will have to come and find out.”

Kathryn Walat (Rail): The relationship of Olivia and Ethan feels very unique to this day and age, in terms of the hyper-media influences on their story. Was that your jumping off point for the play? Or did you start with the timeless tale of writers coupling at artists’ retreats?

Laura Eason: The spark for the play actually came from an interest in exploring the exchange that takes place in any intimate relationship. But I heightened the situation by having both of them be writers of ambition who each want something from the other, personally and professionally. As for the technology in the play, the Internet and social media are such an integral part of our lives now, I think that in telling a story that explores both being an artist now and trying to find an audience, technology just has to be a part of the conversation.

Rail: With this play you’re also asking interesting questions of identity, both in terms of media and the writing market, and also getting to know and trust a person intimately. Are we in an age when those two things can really be separate? And if not, how do we navigate that, as flesh-and-blood people?

Eason: Because of social media, the personal and the professional are incredibly blurred now. And the bigger questions of identity and intimacy, and what those words mean now, is also something that interests me a lot. In the past sharing personal details of your life with someone, and the decision of when and how to share those details, were part of the way you established intimacy. You let them in on your secrets, right? But now, when people post so much of their lives online, what—besides sex—helps create those bonds of intimacy?

Rail: And sex definitely is the bond between these two characters, forged despite Olivia’s initial disdain for Ethan when they meet at the B&B:

ETHAN

Did you buy that bottle of wine?

OLIVIA

What?

ETHAN

I’m just saying—

OLIVIA

I’ll tell them I drank it and they’ll charge it to my bill.

ETHAN

So, they can charge what I eat to mine. This way?
Ethan goes to the kitchen. Olivia collects her manuscript.

OLIVIA

(To herself) What a total jag-off!

ETHAN

(Calling) You want anything?

OLIVIA

(Calling) No, thanks.

ETHAN

(Calling) Am I seeming like a dick?

OLIVIA

(To herself) What?!

ETHAN

(Calling, louder) Hey—am I seeming like a dick?

OLIVIA

(Calling) Yeah. Yeah, you are.

ETHAN

(After a beat, calling) Sorry.

In production, so much of the play must be fueled by the sexual sparks. Have you learned about the script from being in rehearsals with Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen?

Eason: Absolutely—the play lives and dies by the chemistry between the actors. Anna and Billy are remarkable and amazing together, and their incredibly skillful performances have shown me moments that needed clarity and reworking, in terms of the script. I’m thrilled with the steps the play has taken so far in rehearsal—it keeps getting stronger as they bring it to life—and we’ll keep tweaking and refining as we head towards opening.

Rail: Meanwhile at the snowy B&B, it doesn’t take long for things to heat up:

ETHAN


Man, I got so lost coming here! Once you get off the highway, there are no street lights anywhere, half the signs I couldn’t see, and with the snow, I was like, where the fuck am I?!

OLIVIA

That’s why they tell you to get here before six.

ETHAN

Smart.

OLIVIA


Um, I should head upstairs.

ETHAN

You don’t seem tired.

OLIVIA

Well …

ETHAN

I think it’s all that rage you’re barely suppressing.

OLIVIA

(Smiling in spite of herself) I thought I was managing it pretty well.

ETHAN

Stay for a minute.

OLIVIA

No. I should go to bed.

ETHAN

(Holding out his empty glass) You sharing or … ?

OLIVIA

I don’t really want to.

ETHAN

I think you kinda do.
Olivia reluctantly fills Ethan’s glass. They drink.

But then the physical attraction of these two becomes stressed by their online lives and choices. In researching the piece, were there particular websites or blogs that sparked—or maybe disgusted—you? Something similar to the Ethan’s Sex With Strangers franchise?

Eason: In general, the idea of over-sharing online really captures my imagination. I’m a bit fascinated by these blogs where people detail every aspect of their relationship, sexual and otherwise. What about the people who are going to date them down the line? How does it feel to be able to go online and actually read about your boyfriend or girlfriend having sex with someone else—in graphic detail? And what about if you put something online when you’re 22 that you really don’t want someone to read at 35—but they do? There’s no controlling that.

Rail: Your play also adds another layer to the different gendered attitudes towards relationships, with Olivia and Ethan’s perhaps female and male approaches to career and self-promotion. You also throw an age gap in between them, enough to push the relationship into cougar territory. In this case, what do you think influences their choices more: gender or age?

Eason: For Ethan and Olivia, both age and gender very strongly shape their career and their ability to promote themselves, almost in equal measure. The play is a lot about ambition and how ambition is viewed: positive or negative, exciting or desperate. And that view is really affected by the gender and age of the ambitious person. That dynamic was a lot of fun to explore.

Rail: Not to mention the question of what to do when you’re getting ready for a nice dinner date, and you overhear your new boyfriend talking to his publicist:

ETHAN

(Answering phone) Dude! You fucking freak! ... (Laughing) Yeah, I just got the offer, but Dude, I can’t. Seriously. I have too much going on. I know, Dude, Vegas!
Olivia reenters, unseen by Ethan.

ETHAN

(Into phone) Yes, they were dirty, filthy, nasty little sluts, weren’t they? Her name? There’s only one thing I remember about her, Brah, and I will tell you, it’s not her name. Or her face! I know, man, what a fucking night! Yeah. All right, we can talk about it but, right now, I gotta go.

So at the end of the day—or play—in your personal opinion, is the prospect of two talented, ambitious writers being together the sexiest thing or worst idea ever?

Eason: I think two people who do the same thing being in a romantic relationship can be the best or the worst—but it’s usually not in between! They’ll understand you like no one else, right? But you’ll be looking in a mirror in many ways—and some people prefer their relationship to feel more like a door, or a window even, than a mirror and—yes, I will stop with that metaphor now before I kill it dead. But based on the play, I would advise against it.

Rail: Yikes. Brooklyn writers, take note.



Sex with Strangers by Laura Eason, directed by David Schwimmer, begins performances July 8 at Second Stage Theatre. For tickets and further info, please visit www.2st.com or call the box office at 212-246-4422.

Contributor

Kathryn Walat

KATHRYN WALAT is a playwright whose latest work is Small Town Values, inspired by Wilder's Our Town.

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