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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Second Stage Theatre


  Billy Magnussen and Anna Gunn/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Given both the provocative title and the slightly contrived set-up of Laura Eason’s compelling new play Sex With Strangers, the question of how soon Olivia (Anna Gunn) and Ethan (Billy Magnussen) will “hook up” after they meet looms large in the minds of audience members at Second Stage Theatre. After all, these two folks – a reclusive, almost 40-year-old novelist and a braggadocious 20-something blogger – are the only two people stuck amidst a blizzard in a remote Michigan bed-and-breakfast. They’re both easy on the eyes, smart and charming (each in their own way), and there’s lots of red wine being consumed. Could they really resist each other for long?

It’s to Eason’s credit that she doesn’t drag out this will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic. But what’s much more important is that Eason hasn’t given us a standard rom-com or created a two-character work that plays as little more than an acting exercise. This is a full-bodied American play that should have a long life in regional theater, and could even possibly work on Broadway.

Indeed, Sex With Strangers – which is actually the title of the blog that has made Ethan both a bestselling writer and a social media sensation – is a multi-layered work that has a lot to say about modern relationships, the pros and cons of modern technology, and the issues of self-esteem and self-doubt that plague everyone, no matter their previous level of artistic, financial and interpersonal success. In the end, we are left asking ourselves how much we truly know another person, whether we’ve slept with them, read their books or followed every one of their Facebook and Twitter posts.

Since there’s an almost thriller-like aspect to the play – is Ethan really the misogynistic, self-absorbed boor his blog would have us believe, or is he the sweet-natured, romantic, misunderstood artist he presents to Olivia? – it would be wrong to divulge too much of the plot. (That said, I’ve seen so many plays that I guessed almost every twist and turn, even as Eason artfully tried to disguise them.) But no matter how many steps ahead of (or behind) Eason one turns out to be, the actors’ flawless performances and undeniable chemistry, guided by David Schwimmer’s almost invisible direction, make the show little short of riveting.

Gunn, who has gained fame over the past seven years for her Emmy Award-winning work as Skyler White on AMC’s megahit show Breaking Bad, has returned to the stage with her theatrical chops honed sharper than ever. Olivia is a complex, almost self-contradictory mix of inner strength and outward fragility, and Gunn keeps these contrasting sides of her character’s personality in perfect balance. Far younger looking in person than on screen, Gunn is nonetheless utterly convincing as a woman having trouble navigating the fact that she’ll soon be 40, unmarried and not as “successful” as she had hoped, yet who still doesn’t see herself as a loser. Moreover, her naturalistic vocal delivery provides a perfect counterpart to Magnussen’s almost-constant hyperactive speaking voice.

Similarly, it’s almost hard to imagine anyone else who would be effective as Magnussen, whose easy charm, goofy-yet-handsome face and killer bod (briefly displayed) make Ethan irresistible. If there are a few basic similarities between Magnussen’s work here and as the vain, less-than-bright actor in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, they’re overshadowed by the depth of feeling he brings to Ethan’s darker moments, especially late in the play when the truth is revealed. It’s a remarkable performance, and if it’s a harbinger of what to expect of this young actor, let us hope he is never a stranger (for long) to the stage! 


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