Between 1982 and 2015, Americans’ attitudes about sex evolved. For evidence, check out two plays in production locally: Laura Eason’s contemporary Sex with Strangers at the Cincinnati Playhouse on its Shelterhouse stage and William Mastrosimone’s 1980s drama Extremities at Incline Theater.
• Sex with Strangers is a new play about two very different writers. Nicholas Carrière plays charming, ebullient Ethan, an arrogant 28-year-old blogger whose writing about sexual conquests has become a best-selling book. Nancy Lemenager is introverted and self-conscious Olivia, a serious, introspective novelist who, at 39, is hiding in a teaching career, discouraged by a few negative reviews and weak sales of her first novel more than a decade earlier.
The 11-year gap between them is wide. He’s addicted to his cell phone, while she prefers to have her nose in a book. She uses an ancient PC laptop, and he (of course) has a MacBook. Ethan’s life is attached to “the cloud,” while Olivia’s is ensconced in cherished books. She’s marking up a manuscript of her latest writing (which she’s loath to share) with a red pen.
Nevertheless, they end up together at a Michigan B&B due to a snowstorm — and some serious advanced interest on Ethan’s part to orchestrate a meeting. They give in quickly to a mutual attraction that’s heavily flavored with aspiration and envy. He has a tremendous online following, but yearns to be taken seriously; she’s a gifted writer, but fearful of criticism by people who don’t get her finely crafted output.
Playwright Eason, who has written scripts for the TV series House of Cards, uses totally natural, contemporary dialogue and a plot that keeps us guessing whether this delicate balance of sexual attraction and professional ambition will collapse. Director KJ Sanchez keeps things hurtling down a road of passion and tentative trust. Misha Kachman’s design for the comfy first-act setting of the B&B and then Olivia’s snug book-lined apartment for Act III are perfect for Ethan’s and Olivia’s teeter-totter of trysting and temptation.
Carrière has the bouncing, youthful energy and the boyish charm that’s enabled him to succeed with his “Sex with Strangers” blog, picking up young women in bars for weekly sexual encounters he writes about. His rationalizing attitude seems like the kind of behavior that would turn off a serious older woman like Olivia, but Lemenager gives her just the right spark of interest, a woman who yearns to be seen and appreciated. These two fine actors look like people who could fall into lust quickly, but they are smart, too, so the conversation about the treacherous state of publishing today is fascinating.
• Mastrosimone’s off-Broadway Extremities from 1982 (it became a 1986 movie starring Farrah Fawcett) presents sex and attraction in a far more serious and brutal frame. Raul (Will Reed) is a pushy lowlife; he’s been stalking three young women who share a house. He bursts in on attractive Marjorie (Eileen Earnest), inclined to lounge around in a state of undress. Knowing her roommates won’t be back from work for hours, he intends to have his way with her, and they have a horrific physical encounter, laced with shocking language and ferocious physicality.
But Marjorie turns the tables, and he becomes her prisoner. When roommates Terry (Katey Blood) and Patricia (Rachel Mock) come home, they discover Marjorie menacing and torturing her foul-mouthed attacker, hogtied and imprisoned in a large fireplace. They are shocked by her intention to murder him. Terry is fearful, while Patricia is pragmatic and highly analytical — so they represent various alternatives to resolution, from avoidance to compromise.Their four-cornered battle unfolds in harsh, often unhinged arguments about motives, likely outcomes and fears.
Tim Perrino staged this edgy, threatening tale, a significant departure for Cincinnati Landmark, known for its productions of safer, more mainstream fare, musicals and classic comedies. It will likely take audiences a while to turn out for this kind of show, but this first stab — and I do mean stab — shows potential.
SEX WITH STRANGERS, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse, continues in the Shelterhouse Theater through Oct. 25. EXTREMITIES, staged by Cincinnati Landmark Productions at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, will be onstage through Oct. 18.