REVIEW: Sex With Strangers (Steppenwolf Theatre)


The perils of blogging while shagging


Sally Murphy and Stephen Louis Grush in 'Sex with Strangers' at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Steppenwolf Theatre presents
Sex With Strangers
Written by Laura Eason
Directed by
Jessica Thebus
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $20-$73  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Steppenwolf Theatre’s remount of Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers, which enjoyed its first success during their 2009 First Look Repertory of New Work, is framed as another installment in their seasonal exploration of the public and private self. Now if only Eason’s play had the depth and strength to take on that weighty mantle. As is, Sex with Strangers is a nice and gentle play about an older generation’s discomfort with a younger generation, their new technological toys, and the exponential expansion of sexual frankness as the result of those toys. The play might “spark dialogue” about where the private self has gone in this internet age but it will hardly give body, clarity or insight to that discussion.

Stephen Louis Grush and Sally Murphy in 'Sex with Strangers' at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.As a result, the play is rather tepid and pleasant but just as easily forgettable. Shy, neurotic and old-school novel writer Olivia (Brenda Barrie for our performance) runs into brash, young, self-promoting blogger Ethan (Stephen Louis Grush) at a writer’s retreat. She’s completing her second novel many years after her first and Ethan, who’s compiled his blog of sexual exploits into a bestselling book, has arrived to work on the screenplay for which he already has a Hollywood contract. The scenario is set for seduction—something the audience can see coming a mile away. But Olivia’s seduction isn’t just about booty calls or–what’s that old 70s phrase? The “zipless fuck”? Olivia is introduced, through Ethan, to the whole world of blogging, social media, and no longer relying upon the gatekeepers, i.e., critics, or those dinosaur editors of print publishing.

It’s sad that we don’t get to know these characters beyond their types. Sadder still is that the chemistry between Barrie and Grush is just not believable. Their relationship has be to set up fast so that the rest of the play can continue—one accepts their sexual interaction just to let the story unfold—but by far there isn’t enough of an instantaneous connection of passion between them to make their relationship credible. Grush is a dynamic actor who gives Ethan’s impetuousness and arrogance the right balance of self-effacing candor. Barrie, meanwhile, has the nuance to convey Olivia’s introverted low self-esteem down pat, but missing is Olivia’s sexual, as well as intellectual, allure. If Olivia is the kind of character who only reveals herself on the page, it’s no wonder that even after the first act she seems a kind of cipher.

So far all the you-know-the-internet/I-don’t-know-the-internet stuff is concerned, that’s really just fluff on top of a much older kind of story about the fickle nature of fame and success, about the envy that springs up between friends over who is making it in their careers and who isn’t, about who has more power in the relationship and who doesn’t. While this is the real dynamic of Ethan and Olivia’s relationship, it’s one in which the characters sleepwalk their way through, never pausing to observe themselves, what they are doing with each other or why.

Plus, Sex with Strangers sets up a strange dichotomy between what’s old and young but then fails to examine that dichotomy or whether it’s even valid.

Stephen Louis Grush and Sally Murphy in 'Sex with Strangers' at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.Ethan falls in love with Olivia in part because of the excellence of her writing. So, the older writer is associated with excellence while Ethan’s blog is emblematic of flash-in-the-pan dreck that gets rewarded with fame and success. Missing from the play’s interrogation is any recollection of old school pulp novelists and young, excellent, intelligently written blogs—or intelligent blogs written by oldsters. Gone is any acknowledgement that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of writers old and young out there who may be every bit as talented, if not more, than the august Olivia—not all of them are going to get publishing contracts, even with a blog to promote their work.

The simplicity of Eason’s set-up is also her play’s downfall. No doubt, many in the audience will find her dialogue humorous and enjoyable, but whether this play will be remembered more than the usual date movie rom-com is anyone’s guess.

Rating ★★½




  Sally Murphy Olivia
  Stephen Louis Grush Ethan
  Brenda Barrie u/s Olivia


  Laura Eason Playwright
  Jessica Thebus Director
  Todd Rosenthal Scenic Design
  Ana Kuzmanic Costume Design
  J.R. Lederle Light Design
  Andre Pluess, Ben Sussman Sound Design
  Christine D. Freeburg Stage Manager
  Polly Carl Dramaturg
  Michael Brosilow Photographer

Stephen Louis Grush and Sally Murphy in 'Sex with Strangers' at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.


7 Responses

  1. I saw this play last night, and I wonder whether this might suffice for an interesting angle that seemed to evade your analysis – and that might clear up some of your criticisms. [A few tepid spoilers, for those who’ve not yet been.]

    The play is not so much an exploration of technology, or of age, or of fame and success, as it is of the relationship between the artist and the artwork. Consider the first act. Surely, what ought to interest us isn’t that Ethan and Olivia fell for one another (C’mon: the “we’re-alone-in-this-remote-bed-and-breakfast” is a plot device as old at least as Chaucer), but WHY they’ve fallen for one another. Ethan falls for Olivia not only because he loves her book, but because he believes that there is an identity relationship between what kind of art Olivia produces and the nature of the Olivia’s ‘character’ as a human being. The fact of her transformation in the second act is what drives him away from her. “You’re better than that,” he shouts at one point.

    And further, this same belief about the relationship between artist and artwork pushes Olivia away from Ethan, at least twice, in the play: she cannot separate the art that Ethan has produced from beliefs about Ethan as a person. And her inability to separate those beliefs – that she continues to suspect from him some lowness of character – is what leads finally to their breakup, and ultimately to the play’s concluding image.

    And that final image, one notes, is inconclusive, and perhaps unsatisfying, only if we interpret the play, as you have, as in some essential way about the relationship between Olivia and Ethan, about technology, or about fame. For surely, none of those questions are resolved in those final lines, that last look back into the apartment. What is resolved, though, what we can know certainly from Olivia’s indecision, is that this play gives us a pretty striking image of just how intimately linked are artists and their artwork – or at least, how intimately linked are our beliefs about them.

  2. Interesting, Aaron. But I still can’t say that those themes are presented and followed in a compelling way by the playwright. In the same way that “an unexamined life is not worth living,” characters who propel themselves through relationships without examining why they’re hooking up with each other–or why they did hook up with each other–are just not worth watching. And, as I mentioned above, there are a whole host of other things that go unexamined either. This doesn’t make for an unpleasant play, just a tepid one.
    Look, people get together and break up all the time. If a playwright is going to put a relationship before an audience, that very act forces the question: why this relationship? Why are we to pay attention to this couple more than others? In the end, I personally cannot give too much attention to Ethan and Olivia because their relationship starts shallowly and ends not so very much deeper. All the rest of it–technology, art, the generational divide–gets dealt with just as shallowly as a movie-of-the-week special. Which means that “Sex with Strangers” could have a great future in television.

  3. Paige, I understand your point, but I’m not really sure what kind of evidence you’d cite for it in the play. First, you ask why it was that Ethan and Olivia hooked up with one another at all, and you indicate that the play is inattentive to an examination of their initial motivations. But that can’t be right, since a significant portion of the play’s opening scene is spent establishing what attracts Ethan to Olivia – namely, that her art inspires him, that he is capable of being moved by things that are beautiful, and this in spite of the low art that he, himself, produces. So, given that nearly all of the dialogue in the first act discusses the nature of the art that either character produces, and their respective attractions and repulsions to that art, AND that the art that they produce is the essential motivator for their relationship, it isn’t obvious to me how the play isn’t *entirely* about what propels the relationship between Ethan and Olivia.

    Second, you ask “why this relationship”, “why are we to pay attention to this couple more than others?” and I think I tried to provide a kind of answer to that in my response. The idea is simply that it’s obvious that we’ve seen this relationship, this sexually charged situation between characters in an isolated setting, before. So, the question to ask is, what are the differences? One difference is that the characters both are artists. They’ve both published. They’re both working on new projects. And then we see that a relationship between them grows in virtue of, and in spite of, the art they’ve produced. All of this, in the first half-hour. It’s plain to us, by that point, that this is a play about the relationship between artists, artworks, and audiences – and in this way, it is a play about the very experience that the audience is having while it attends this very play. And if that isn’t enough to bring you along through the relationship, to see just what portrayal of our relationship with her the playwright is trying to offer, it isn’t obvious to me what *would* bring you along for that.

    But then, it sounds like a common theme between your reaction and Scott’s reaction is that the characters just didn’t grip you enough – you didn’t feel invested in the relationship between Ethan and Olivia. And in that case, what I’m saying serves as more of an analysis of the play, rather than a reaction to the performance. Though, I will say, it’s hard to know how to respond to your reaction, except to say that mine wasn’t the same, and that no small part of what held my interest was something like the analysis I’m sort of gesturing at.

    But maybe, to pump your intuitions a little, weren’t you at all gripped by the play’s closing image? When Olivia looks back into the apartment, at her fiance’s dry cleaning so cleverly hung across the stage? When her indecision felt palpable to me, I sort of knew that I’d been invested in her relationship with Ethan all along, for if I hadn’t been so invested, her indecision wouldn’t have matter to me nearly as much.

  4. Aaron, I think the gist of our differences is thus: you felt drawn to these characters–I felt they were too shallowly and stereotypically written to be drawn to them in spite of the performances offered by the actors. (By the way, I still hold to my original assessment that the chemistry between Grush and Barrie was minimal.)

    “Sex with Strangers” is a melodrama–and I don’t use that term pejoratively. I’ve seen brilliant and psychologically or thematically complex melodramas but this play was not one of them. If you were touched by the relationship between Olivia and Ethan, good for you. I felt like I was being led through a dance with no surprises, no depth, no insight. Sorry, but I pretty much left the theater feeling untouched by what I saw–and that’s never a good feeling.

    Since you are such an impassioned advocate for the production, you can definitely support it by word of mouth–or perhaps become a critic and get your impressions of the work that you see out there for all to see. The very best to you.

  5. Fun enough, but pretty hollow. After initially being disappointed with the chemistry and ending, I started to like what I believed was a more subversive message about narcissism. Then I heard from the author that she didn’t intend for that at all!

    A more complete review at

  6. Hmmm . . . I find your analysis about narcissism terribly compelling, Sean. But I also think it’s a rather unintentional effect on the part of the playwright. Thanks for writing.

  7. The play was just not interesting.
    I’ve never walked out of a play…I did last night.
    10 minutes before the end of the show.
    I thought Grush was believable and a wonderful actor. I wanted to scream everytime Barrie delivered her lines. First scene with Grush…she simply did not take the time to listen to him speak. She constantly spoke over his lines. Then the irritating way her first 3-4 words of each line would be loudly (shoutingly) blurted and high pitch, and the rest of the line was mumbled.
    Shocking to me, that the director did not have this actress take the time to listen, so she would react and deliver her lines as to be believable to the audience. We the audience want to feel for the characters, but Barrie…I wanted to just yell “SHUT THE HECK UP! You deserve to be alone! On stage and off!”
    This may be too critical, but I feel that actors need to learn to listen to each other. No matter what the script is about.

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