THEATRE REVIEW: Sex with Strangers

Words by Tahnee Robinson 

Sex with Strangers is off to a good start. It has an intriguing title and an attractive cast — and the same play recently opened off-broadway starring Anna Gunn from Breaking Bad. Brisbane’s version, directed by Jennifer Flowers, stars Veronica Neave as the self-composed Olivia, with Thomas Larkin as the self-aggrandising Ethan. Despite the raunchy title, Sex with Strangers is essentially a romantic comedy. Two miss-matched souls meet-cute in a conveniently empty writers’ retreat cabin-in-the-woods; the action proceeds as expected (perhaps with more action than Brisbane’s theatre-going public is accustomed to).

It’s rare to see two characters so quickly and fully asserted on stage. The American accents initially come as a shock — though it becomes apparent that this was dictated by the script, which is set firmly in North America. Without microphones (clothes come off far too frequently for that to be practical) Neave and Larkin are challenged with conveying intimacy while making themselves heard. They do an admirable job, though it’s when both actors’ accents momentarily slip that I feel I’ve really seen their true potential for depth and sincerity — these are the people I want to be watching.

Larkin and Neave

Laura Eason’s script relies heavily on some well-worn territory — the comedic potential of age differences, the sexual appeal of bad boys — and is occasionally downright problematic. Ethan’s modus operandi seems to be to sail blithely over Olivia’s clearly articulated boundaries, and the initial result is a sexy good time. Naturally this approach only takes the pair so far before things start to get complicated. It’s tricky ground to navigate: understanding that having our boundaries pushed can be creatively beneficial and kind of hot, but that it can also be horribly disrespectful and destructive. It’s hard to tell if this exploration is deliberate or accidental, though it’s held together by the wholeness of Olivia’s character. She is a woman with hang-ups, on a journey of self-discovery, but she does not need to be rescued.

All of this takes place on Troy Armstrong’s simple but clever set. Each side of the open stage gives the audience a slightly different perspective — I was lucky enough to be able to see down the hallway, to catch the emotional nuances of the characters’ comings and goings. The lighting design (Jason Glenwright and Tim Gawne) is similarly clever: subtle changes in intensity and direction guide the audience’s sense of time and place. The first act closes memorably, using only the light of Olivia’s laptop screen. Dane Alexander’s sound design is fairly spare, serving largely to denote sex in a way that feels a little tongue-in-cheek. The music signaling Ethan’s arrival and departure from the writers’ retreat is a perfectly executed little touch.

Sex with Strangers explores some interesting territory with regard to consent and desire. And while it’s not quite as daring as I had hoped it would be, I suspect some of my fellow punters might disagree (there is something to be said about age gaps after all, and perhaps my browser history is filthier than I thought).

SEX WITH STRANGERS runs at Brisbane Powerhouse until 26 July 2014. Tickets $38

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