BY ELIZA BENT
Almost every play begins with a rush of inspiration, and ideally, that energy remains palpable for the rest of its life. Once it's time to actually stage the show, however, creative impulses must contend with practical necessities. As counterintuitive as it might sound, playwrights often need to account for the smallest, concrete details in order to honor their larger artistic visions.
Just ask Laura Eason, whose dense and thorny two hander Sex with Strangers is playing through Aug. 24 at Second Stage Theatre.
Written in 2009, Eason's script has gone through a number of tweaks over time (previous productions have been at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and Australia's Sydney Theatre Company.) "The core of the story has remained the same," says Eason during a break from the writer's room at the hit Netflix drama House of Cards. "But three things in particular have evolved."
The first is the role of technology. Sex with Strangers follows a fraught affair between Olivia, a novelist, and Ethan, a sex blogger who admires her lofty work. Ethan is unsurprisingly dedicated to new media, and he tries to convince Olivia to self-publish. However, Eason says, "there are things about the reality of self-publishing that weren't so prevalent in 2009." During a previous production, for instance, the playwright says audiences gasped when Ethan gives Olivia an iPad. "Some people had never seen the iPad in real life, now we all have them."
It's been crucial for Eason to incorporate this tech evolution, even if the play itself is not primarily about technology. "Of course you want to write something that will endure and resonate, but sometimes when you're overly focused on a piece enduring you miss the moment you're in," she says. Echoing her character Olivia, she adds, "Thinking your play will live forever? How arrogant. If I get more than one production I'm grateful!"
Another update lies in the play's physicality. "It used to be that Olivia and Ethan would start kissing and then the lights would go out," Eason says, discussing scenes that end with the stage direction "sex is imminent." The corporeal relationship between these characters was one of the reasons Eason wanted to work with David Schwimmer, a Chicago theatre comrade who is directing this production. She knew he would grasp what the actors' bodies needed to be doing. "Ultimately, for these characters, the sex matters," she says. "In this current production we first see the seduction, the second time is really carnal, and the third is very tender and slow and intimate. The audience gets to see the progression of their intimacy."
The set design has also evolved. While the hyper realistic design in Chicago and the abstract style of the Australian production both served the story, Eason is thrilled with the current "combo platter" of the Second Stage version, which has a set by Andromache Chalfant. "Now we're grounded enough that we buy into these characters, but the place they are in comes out as more of a feeling than a place that would exist in real life," she says. "The architecture isn't realistic, but it makes sense emotionally. There is something really nice about a set like that because it helps you frame the show in a bigger way."
That's arguably a necessity for a play like Sex With Strangers, which works on both physical and philosophical levels and needs to contend with the realities of both.
Eliza Bent is a journalist, playwright, and performer living in Brooklyn
Photo by Joan Marcus