Tall Tales: Curious Theatre Company's “Sex With Strangers” Reviewed

Denver’s Curious Theatre Company’s ‘Sex With Strangers,” through February  20, 2016. Tickets here.

Paige Price as Olivia and Michael Kingsbaker as Ethan in Curious Theatre Company’s “Sex With Strangers."

Paige Price as Olivia and Michael Kingsbaker as Ethan in Curious Theatre Company’s “Sex With Strangers.”

“Sex With Strangers” is deliciously funny play about the pros and cons of self-publishing.

It’s about art versus artifice. It’s about the cherished notion of personal expression versus cheap thrills.

It’s about anything-goes world of Kindle Direct against the old-school elite publishers like Farrar Straus Giroux.

It also is very much about identity and the power of reputation.

It’s lit versus pop. It’s leather-bound classics versus portable light on a screen.

As staged by The Curious Theatre Company, “Sex With Strangers” is a compelling, witty, sassy and fun. 

We first meet Olivia on a snowy night at a Michigan bed and breakfast. She’s doing final edits on her latest literary effort, all neat and tidy in a stack of manuscript pages. A bottle of wine is open. She’s surrounded by books. She’s on a personal retreat, happily holed up.

Her serenity is shattered with the arrival of an unexpected guest, the rough and callow Ethan, soon revealed as the man-boy behind the memoir “Sex With Strangers.”

The layers of irony begin with a bang. Ethan took on his memoir as a way to demonstrate (on a bet) that you could meet—and hook up with—women face to face and not through an app or dating algorithm. So his challenge was to meet at least one woman a week for a year and detail the encounters on a titillating blog.

The blog become a book and the book is now going Hollywood and Ethan has left a tawdry trail on the Internet under the moniker Ethan Strange. More than a few women have blogged back about their perspective of the hook ups and Ethan’s attempt at a public reclaiming of face-to-face pickups left him rich, but with a reputation for shallow sleaze.

But Ethan, it turns out, has taste. Maybe. He’s read Olivia’s first book, published many years ago, and he harbors his own dreams of crossing over to credibility. He’s got ideas for an app that will help readers connect with, say, literary lights such as Junot Diaz.

And he might just be able to help re-kindle (ahem) her career by re-publishing Olivia’s first book, if only she’ll put it out under a new name with a better cover. And maybe, you know, go straight to e-books. And possibly, even, through his app.

Well, sparks fly. Despite Ethan’s bar-hopping, bed-hopping ways, Olivia pays close attention when Ethan starts praising her first book. She starts shedding clothes when he quotes a key line from memory.

Laura Eason’s tight script piles on the complications. Olivia insists that her second novel isn’t yet ready for Ethan to read. However …

Ethan extracts a promise that Olivia won’t troll around on the internet to read about his string of flings. However …

She overhears him playing the role of his persona, Ethan Strange, on the telephone. Is that the true Ethan, all crude and demeaning? Can sex with this stranger lead to love? Who is the real Ethan, the guy who takes her suggestion to read Marguerite Duras, and claims to like it, or the guy caught posing with a bimbo on a quick junket to L.A.?

The acting is top notch. As Ethan, Michael Kingsbaker brings a loose, cocky, swagger that is one part frat boy and one part Joey Tribbiani. He shifts from earnest to surface with ease.

As Olivia, Paige Price runs from warm to cool, from hot to chilly, from insecure and unsure to giddy and star struck. OMG, FSG? Her shift from a writer happy with obscurity to download-counting author with budding fame is spot on. These are two knock-out performances, directed with a nimble touch by Christy Montour-Larson.

Again, the Curious Theatre Company worker bees have transformed the space with a killer set—from the beautiful snowfall, the moody lighting, the giant bookcases, and the clever nooks. A simple change shifts the space from the bed and breakfast to Olivia’s apartment in Chicago for the second act.

The play asks us to believe that agents and big New York publishers make decisions 1,000 times faster than they do, but the compression of time in this case is all to serve the needs of the story, which presents a memorable contemplation about the global rush for satisfaction.

Kind of like, say, sex with strangers.

 

 

 

Mark Stevens, courtesy Cyrus McCrimmon

Mark Stevens, courtesy Cyrus McCrimmon

Editor’s note: Telluride Inside… and Out’s regular column, Tall Tales, is so named because contributor Mark Stevens is one long drink of water. He is also long on talent. Mark was raised in Massachusetts. He’s been a Coloradoan since 1980. He’s worked as a print reporter, national news television producer, and school district communicator. Mark is the author of the Allison Coil Mystery Series—Antler Dust (2007), Buried by the Roan (2011), Trapline (2014) and Lake of Fire (due out in September, 2015). The series is set in the Flat Tops Wilderness in Western Colorado. Trapline won the 2015 Colorado Book Award for best mystery and the 2015 Colorado Author League award for best genre fiction. Mark Stevens’ new Alison Coil mystery, Lake of Fire, was published this year.

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