Harvey Weinstein. Kevin Spacey. Charlie Rose. Matt Lauer. Russell Simmons. Casey Affleck. James Franco. Al Franken. Roy Moore. Donald Trump. Ethan Strange. Ethan Strange? You haven’t heard of Ethan Strange? Well, let me fill you in. Ethan is the fictional best-seller who slept with random women for a year, posted his titillating sexcapades on his blog, secured half a million followers, and ultimately wooed Hollywood. However, when faced with the potential love of his life, can Ethan overcome his bad boy reputation and scandalous past which sought pleasure in demeaning young women? This is one of many pertinent and engrossing questions former House of Cards writer Laura Eason poses in her provocative and topical 2014 off-Broadway dramedy Sex with Strangers, currently receiving a first-rate local premiere courtesy of the Human Race Theatre Company at the Loft Theatre.
Ben Palacios, just as handsome and chiseled in face and abs as he was three years ago as spunky Spike in the Race’s production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, was absolutely born to play man-child Ethan. Playful yet aggressive, self-absorbed yet attentive, and immature yet shrewd, Palacios creates a fascinating enigma, which makes it very difficult to figure out how Ethan should be perceived. Is he a lost cause? The eternal frat boy who won’t grow up? Can he be held accountable? Can he be redeemed? Can all the women from his past be believed? Regardless, and perhaps most importantly, Palacios is attractive, seductive, sly, and convincing throughout to allow you to believe any woman could fall under Ethan’s magnetic spell. After all, his sex appeal is a crucial catalyst driving this steamy play considering Ethan meets failed novelist Olivia while snowbound at a bed and breakfast in rural Michigan, cozily conceived by scenic designer Eric Moore. After a few moments of cutesy small talk overflowing with unmistakable chemistry, sparks and clothing fly, smoothly overseen with passionate intimacy by director Greg Hellems and accented with pulsating music by sound designer Jay Brunner.
Portrayed by the luminous Jennifer Johansen, a memorable Masha opposite Palacios in the aforementioned Vanya, Olivia arises as a strong, complex woman who doesn’t need the validation and encouragement Ethan readily offers. “I hate to reminisce about sex,” she boldly states, which is the polar opposite of Ethan’s perspective on the subject. Olivia’s genuine passion for literature, from the smell of old books to reflection on great authors, fuels her contentment despite a fading career and recently resorting to teaching to pay the bills. When Ethan invites her to self-publish under a pseudonym on a brand new literary app he’s created, the temptation is real. But why would she fall so easily for Ethan’s emotional and professional advances, essentially being made into his online image? Is she tempted by the allure of a breakthrough or simply the allure of a younger man? Johansen’s performance encompasses both temptations beautifully. In fact, when Olivia discovers the depth of Ethan’s abuse, particularly the fact that he left intoxicated girls unconscious in their own vomit, there’s still something within her that leads you to believe the last straw will never truly be the last straw. Ethan has grown too palpable, exciting and electric. All of these emotions are on display in Johansen’s superb body language as the play reaches its suspenseful conclusion.
Some plays mature with time and Eason’s work certainly has. What are we to make of her compelling look at ambition, betrayal, friendship, romance, and unbridled sexuality as powerful men across the country have been accused of demoralizing and sexually harassing women in many industries from the soundstage to the boardroom? If you’re looking for an entertaining, thought-provoking outing, consider the intellectual and physical heat of Sex with Strangers.
Sex with Strangers continues through Feb. 18 in the Loft Theatre of the Metropolitan Arts Center, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings; 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesdays evenings; and 2 p.m. Sunday matinees. There will be a post-show talkback after the Feb. 11 performance. Act One: 60 minutes; Act Two: 45 minutes. Tickets are $35-$50 for adults; $32-$46 for seniors; and $17.50-$25 for students. There are a limited number of $12 and $25 side area seats available for each performance. Call (937) 228-3630 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org or ticketcenterstage.com. Patrons are advised the play contains partial nudity, strong language and adult themes.