Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sex with Strangers

Sydney Theatre Company presents SEX WITH STRANGERS by Laura Eason at Wharf 1, Hickson Rd.

SEX WITH STRANGERS is a contemporary, American, romantic comedy (rom-com) for two actors by Laura Eason. Olivia (Jacqueline McKenzie) is a 39 year old teacher, who once wrote a novel. The critical response and the public response to that novel was crucially poor. It scared her off that particular career path, although, when the play begins, she is wrestling with a draft of a new novel at a writer's retreat (a luxury bed and breakfast) in a snow blizzard, in rural Michigan. A young blogger/New York Times Best Seller writer, Ethan Strange, 27, (Ryan Corr), arrives to, it appears at first, to also complete a new work - a mutual mentor/writer acquaintance of both the characters has recommended the retreat.

Progressively, we discover that Ethan is a big fan of the first novel by Olivia and has some business offers for an online publishing company he is setting up. The play evolves as a romantic travail for both, that takes many twists and turns and tumbles into each others arms, right down to a teasing last heart beat as the lights fade. It is funny, sentimental and warming in the most pleasant way. A middle of the road adventure.

But, what also happens in Ms Eason's play, is a gentle clash and exposure of cultural values of different generations, of writers, and of the new challenges facing the means by which books may be published: E-books or the classic Hard Cover. It deals with the evolving moral lines drawn in the proverbial 'sands' of what is acceptable behaviour in public and private lives - the real world and the virtual world. Social Media! Could Ms Eason have a more prescient finger on the pulse of the contemporary publishing dilemmas? It tangles, teasingly, with  audience impressions of the flashy, glib, expert, I.T. hipster, Ethan, who has a creative bent with salacious confessions of lots of sex with strangers, maybe fictive, maybe not, that he has converted from an enormously popular on-line interactive blog to a highly successful Best Seller, and that of the older, convention-bound, talented but failed artist, Olivia, who desperately graves validation and success, and, is yet, paralyzed, with fear of rejection. Again.

Ethan appears suspect morally. Is that because he is soooo young? Olivia appears rock solid in her moral codes. Is that because she appears soooo mature? What was intriguing, for me, was to have my own 'detective' suspicions confirmed during this bouncy, clever, episodic, ten scene play. I am not going to tell you what those suspicions were except, as a clue, that old aphorism "Don't Judge a Book By It's Cover", seems apt. The last beat of the play asks, "Can bookish thritysomething love interest Olivia ever trust Ethan?" or, is it, to the surprise, maybe, for some,  "Should twentysomething love interest Ethan ever trust Olivia?" Go and see which question is the most pertinent. The determining factor might be generational recognition!

This a very handsome production by film director, Jocelyn Moorhouse. Mostly, she manages the action of the play easily. The look of the show, Set Design by Tracy Grant Lord, with two locations, are realistic and stylised at the same time, with the use of computer generated word play projected onto the back walls, sometimes spilling all over the set, quoting famous authors about the hazards of writing and love, during the many scene change moments. The quotes are well chosen, witty, sometimes poignant, even pungent (on recall of the production, the quotes maybe some of the more memorable writing!) The sure sense of character, structure and ease with the genre is strong and a model to study if one was a playwriter, oneself. The composition and Sound Design by Steve Francis, along with the lighting by Matthew Marshall, support without distraction, the main event - the play.

The best reason to see this play, however, is to see these two wonderful actors, Ms McKenzie and Mr Corr, who appear to have a chemical charisma that sparks ease and comfort, trust, and great emotional empathy for each other, and have the ability to translate that joy into a comfortable gift to, and, for the audience. Ms McKenzie is her usual combustible gifted self, in a role that is slightly underwritten in the first half of the play, who masterfully disguises that, keeps it afloat and aloft, and pounces on her second act 'stuff' with appetite. While, Mr Corr in his debut at the Sydney Theatre Company presents himself as a highly attractive and sophisticated player, carrying the bulk of the energy trajectory of Ms Eason's interests. He is simply bursting with sexual energy and dexterous wit, physical ease and elegance. He plays, undauntingly, as an equal, with Ms Mckenzie's experience and generosity. A kind of partnership magic of the Tracey/Hepburn kind smoulders here. Here is a young actor to watch out for. Mr Schmitz move over.

My one quibble is the use of the Australian accent with this text. The STC's policy seems to be that this is an Australian story, so, let's use our Australian voice. And, for arguments sake, as the Australian is no less human than the American, it is our story, a human story. But it is couched in a very differently expressed language culture.

A surface reading of this production in Wharf 1, has us meet two successful Australian writers, with problems, who happen to live, and are successful in the United States. We are in rural Michigan and Chicago, they tell us so, and the publishing and film behemoths they aspire and struggle with are definitely, powerful American Corporations- publishing companies and film studios and cities. Just how did these two Aussies achieve this education and level of success in a very competitive field in the United States locations and still have their Australian accents, without even affect, is a wonder.

It is a really kind of irritating and weird choice by the company - but, not one that is unique in their output. I felt, feel, stupid to be annoyed by such trivia. But many others have told me of their 'stupidity',(read frustration), as well. So, I protest, once again about this practice. I feel condescended too. Ms Eason's American text delivered in this very different sound organisation, that is the Australian vernacular, seems to be a little blunted musically with the vowel sounds. And certainly, in the musical and rhythmical patterns scored on the page, the vocal delivery does not have the direct energy of the American dialect for which it was written, and as such, I suspect, may cost some of the comic effects of Ms Eason's writing. For she is writing keenly and well with an American ear for the effect of her comic material. I think the play is more adept than we hear, here. As she was a guest at the Opening Performance, I wonder what she felt?

SEX WITH STRANGERS premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago last year and may represent a cultural payoff/exchange for the Sydney Theatre Company, who hosted that company's production of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY nearly two years ago. (A pity the STC did not include an interest in the International prize winning play CLYBOURNE PARK by another Steppenwolf writer, Bruce Norris - it is wonderful! The Melbourne Theatre Company presented it last year). SEX WITH STRANGERS is a very pleasant representative of the possibilities of theatre writing diversity, that we haven't seen much of, at the STC, in recent past seasons (THE HISTRIONICS, instead, galore!) It is most welcome, however 'soft' it may be for some. It might be even more interesting if the STC commissioned an Australian romantic comedy written in the Australian vernacular for us, instead of bowdlerising the American play literature to find the Australian story. Jane Bodie, produced a very interesting play last year in this genre: THIS YEAR'S ASHES, up at the Griffin Theatre and might be worth commissioning. I'm sure she would be chuffed. That play has a very interesting female lead, by the bye.

Come to think of it, it would be wonderful, would it not, if Cate Blanchett, instead of her recreation of , and in, characters from the Classics, (next year a role in that tiresome play THE MAIDS, although, double, double bonus, for us, with Isabelle Huppert!). The roles we have seen her give, have been, undoubtedly,  a magnificent feast for us, but wouldn't it be great if she got down to creating for us, an original Australian play role? Her early career has footprints all over the Australian vernacular - her film characters included. Who knows, maybe, next year!!! Australian writers would be pleased to write for her, I'm sure. Australian audiences would be pleased as well. I know I would be. Isn't there an Australian role that Ms Blanchett is interested in? If there is, it is curious, that the STC hasn't yet found a place for that role in their season plans, and if there isn't, why haven't they commissioned one for her, in the years that she has been Co-Artistic Director. (Mr Upton is a writer - he must know her well.)

Meanwhile GROSS UND KLEIN travelled to London for the Arts Olympics this year, and to other European countries for other reasons, with our Cate as the German heroine Lotte, no Australian woman has appeared from our dramatic literature, on any recent high profile international stage. Our Australian playwrights not up to the task, I guess?! We are told, as is the world, as it seems to be a policy choice by the STC, based on practice habit, that GROSS UND KLEIN is an Australian story because we were using Australian accents. SEX WITH STRANGERS is an Aussie story that just happens to be set in the US of A, isn't it?

The three volume novel of Frank Moorehouse : GRAND DAYS, DARK PALACE and COLD LIGHT has a heroine worthy of Ms Blanchett's gifts : Edith Campbell Berry. Anybody game to adapt?

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