Sex with Strangers Review – An Intimate Play in Every Way

Nina O'Keefe and Rich Holton in Citadel Theatre's production of Sex with Strangers.
Rich Holton and Nina O’Keefe in Citadel Theatre’s production of Sex with Strangers.

Evanston native Laura Eason is primarily known for two things: her work as a writer/producer for four seasons of House of Cards and her intimate two-person play Sex with Strangers, which has returned to the Chicagoland area in a production by Citadel Theatre, directed by Scott Westerman.

Nina O’Keefe in Citadel Theatre’s production of Sex with Strangers.

Sex with Strangers is a play I read and loved in college, and I loved it all the more in performance. Eason’s script is smart, funny, and insightful, raising questions about truth, ambition, technology, and human connection through the story of Olivia and Ethan, writers of different generations who meet at a writer’s retreat in the woods and fall into a complicated romance as Ethan works to get Olivia’s brilliant but obscure work recognized using the massive online following he’s gained from blogging about his sexual misadventures.

Nina O’Keefe and Rich Holton in Citadel Theatre’s production of Sex with Strangers.

What makes this play work is the richness of the two characters; each of them is nuanced and filled with contradictions, just like real people are. Ethan and Olivia contrast one another in many ways, yet there is a spark of genuine connection between them that makes their interactions all the more complicated as events progress and ulterior motives are revealed. Actors Nina O’Keefe and Rich Holton understand the depth and richness of their characters, and the vivid life they bring to them is the driving force behind the show. Holton oozes charm and captures the Ethan’s multiplicity with a casual and believable ease. And O’Keefe makes subtle and specific choices that reveal Olivia’s vulnerability, letting the audience feel her every shifting emotion as the story progresses.

Rich Holton and Nina O’Keefe in Citadel Theatre’s production of Sex with Strangers.

The little details of design can sometimes make a production, but here they fall more into the category of breaking it. LED strip lights surrounding the stage light up in various colors during heightened emotional moments, which feels out of place with the naturalistic style of the text. I was particularly bothered by a scene in which Olivia is in a moment of crisis and the lights flash in a variety of colors in quick succession; if you feel the need to use flashing lights to indicate an emotional moment, you clearly don’t have much faith in your actor, and as O’Keefe is spectacularly talented, this seems unjustified.

Rich Holton and Nina O’Keefe in Citadel Theatre’s production of Sex with Strangers.

Another distracting bit of design work is in the constant taking on and off of layers of clothing by the characters; if there is supposed to be some kind of symbolic significance to this, it isn’t clear (and frankly, it’s a shame every time Holton puts his shirt back on). But the worst device is probably the staging of transitions. Often scenes end with presumed offstage sex, but in Westerman’s blocking, there are multiple occasions where one character leaves the stage for the bedroom but the other doesn’t, remaining onstage until the lights come up and the passage of time is made clear. This choice is odd, and seems to imply that Olivia is occasionally having sex with just herself (which, hey, good for her).

Rich Holton and Nina O’Keefe in Citadel Theatre’s production of Sex with Strangers.

In spite of weak design and some questionable directing choices, the brilliant script and excellent acting make this production worth seeing. Add Sex with Strangers to your to-do list immediately.

 

Ticket Information

Location: 300 S. Waukegan Rd, Lake Forest

Dates: Friday, February 2 – Sunday, March 4, 2018

Times: Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, Wednesdays, February 7 and 21 at 11 am

Prices: Weds., Thurs., & Fris. $37.50, Sats. and Suns. $40.00. Discounts available for Seniors, Students, and for Groups of 10 or more. Tickets available at the Citadel Theatre website or by calling 847.735.8554.

 

All photos by North Shore Camera Club.

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