Igniting a romance is easy. Two people alone in an isolated B&B closed for a snowstorm? Well, clothes are going to come off. But maintaining the tension of flirtation is even more fascinating and, in playwright Laura Eason's snappy Sex With Strangers, extremely funny. The current Vermont Stage production of the 2011 play is buoyant comedy with crackling performances.
The opposites who attract are both writers, with careers pointing in opposite directions. Ethan turned his Sex With Strangers blog into two best sellers, leveraged the books into a massive Twitter presence and capped that off by selling a screenplay based on his relentless sexual conquests. He doesn't object to being called an asshole.
Olivia's literary first novel earned mixed reviews and didn't garner enough momentum to keep her publisher or agent interested. The book was good, but the gates of fame didn't open. Now, Olivia teaches and continues to write but has no intention of publishing again.
Ethan has read her book and admires it. He's also checked out photos of Olivia online and would not claim he's interested only in her mind. So it's not entirely an accident that he's picked this B&B as a writing retreat to polish his screenplay. He's learned Olivia will be there, though he couldn't have counted on the accident of a snowstorm that's left the place empty but for the two of them.
Ethan gets what he wants from the moment he arrives, pounding on the door to the inn and plundering the kitchen for food. He's playful, an adorable rule breaker who both fascinates and repels thoughtful Olivia. Conflicting feelings are the very fuel of flirtation, and soon the two strangers are investigating the pleasures and risks of trusting each other.
Writing is almost the only thing they have in common. He's an extrovert in his mid-twenties willing to write sexy snark if that's where the audience is. She's pushing 40 and unwilling to risk audience reactions to her work but not ready to give up writing. Now, Ethan might be able to help relaunch her career.
But his ability to harvest online attention comes from being a sex memoirist without compunctions. Ethan's blog was an acerbic chronicle of what it's like to seduce a different woman every few days and make the whole adventure public. The ultra-ironic slant on modern dating was a hit, but Ethan claims it's behind him now.
Unlike a typical romance that just uncovers passion, Sex With Strangers puts Olivia in the difficult position of wondering whether she can know this stranger at all. Could this handsome, charming, funny younger man really be coming on to her? And is he a dickhead or a dreamboat?
The script is stuffed with humor, but it takes actors of high caliber to bring out the laughs that rippled throughout Thursday's performance. Cadden Jones, as Olivia, and Logan James Hall, as Ethan, forged a wonderfully high-voltage connection onstage. They delivered real, sexy sizzle and excelled at clever repartee.
As the play begins, Jones coats Olivia with just enough ice to give Ethan something to thaw. The circumstances are straight out of a Harlequin romance novel, but Jones doesn't overcompensate by portraying a tart, modern princess fighting off attention. She inhabits the script's edgy humor with ease and makes Olivia's keen intellect a human quality, not a superpower. And Jones conveys the giddy fun of passion enjoyed as Ethan's equal, not his trophy.
Ethan is a house afire at the outset, then lets us see Olivia slowing him down. The plot takes away the B&B's Wi-Fi, but what makes the characters click is Hall's ability to show that no distraction compares with Olivia. Hall isn't just playing sincerity, he's radiating it. His warmth contrasts with his past bro behavior, and Hall makes him entirely capable of both extremes.
The acting challenge of the play lies in holding back. Any romantic story is about discovering another person, but this play is ultimately about how hard it is to know anyone. In a sense, the characters stay strangers. The actors must convey eagerness to connect plus a still-stronger desire to withhold, and Jones and Hall excel here.
Director Jordan Gullikson keeps the energy pulsing but also gives the actors room to build pauses and connect with each other. The comic banter becomes true exchanges in which characters react, retreat and engage. Sarcasm smolders and wit blooms. Using clever lighting effects, Gullikson integrates the sex in the story via suggestive freeze frames, a smart way to tell, not show.
The set, designed by Jeff Modereger, has walls that spin to convert the B&B drawing room into Olivia's city apartment for Act 2. Jamien Forrest's lighting establishes mood and carries a share of the storytelling.
Eason's play is a taut, contemporary look at relationships. By creating a decade's age difference between the characters, the playwright explores the changing nature of public and private. Olivia lives her personal life face-to-face and without online updates to the world at large. For Ethan, real life isn't that real until it's shared and attracting comments.
To the end, these characters remain hard to know because we see them as they present themselves, not necessarily as who they are. Does Olivia want love or a career boost? Is Ethan capable of deep feeling or nothing but misogyny?
The woman who finally blooms under the right man's attention is a standard romantic trope. Eason's story follows that track but adds a modern twist by questioning romance as an end in itself. Does Prince Charming charm because he's very, very good at feeding his insatiable appetite? And is sex, however good, the only thing a princess has to trade for success?
This romance challenges the knee-jerk expectation of a happily-ever-after. But the humor and lively performances are so engaging that it's hard not to feel a strong rooting interest for these very modern, very funny lovers.