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REVIEW: Sex With Strangers | Wharf 1, Sydney

Good Sex, and you don’t need protection. Jacqueline McKenzie and Ryan Corr are convincing lovers in a new Sydney Theatre Company play.

It will be no secret to those that know me, whether personally, professionally, or purely via my responses to theatre, that I have a predilection for simplicity. Monologues, blackbox, that kind of thing. So Laura Eason’s Sex With Strangers, a two-hander, gets off to a good start and it just gets better from there.

The cast (Jacqueline McKenzie and Ryan Corr) that looks so promising on paper translates as being probably even better in practice. My only puzzlement was, given that Ethan and Olivia didn’t have American accents, why not consider locating them in Australia? Textually, this would’ve presented a few challenges, but nothing in surmountable, I wouldn’t have thought. Anyway, it’s a minor point, because questions about manipulation, interpersonal politics, dating and relationships in the digital age still translate.

Sydney Theatre Company muses Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton have recruited a particularly interesting director in Jocelyn Moorhouse, who’s brought her film background to bear through the medium of designer Tracy Grant Lord and, more particularly, Matthew Marshall, the lighting and projection designer, who’ve created cinematic backdrops that illuminate the outside world by way of the illusion of a forest cloaked in snow and animated quotes from great authors. Sometimes fragments of text spill all over the performers, whose characters are both writers. Anachronistically, it becomes a feature in itself without really intruding or diverting attention away from the main game.

We open on a B&B (“nothing too quaint”), somewhere in rural Michigan. If it helps, you can think about it as, I dunno. Thredbo. Olivia, a teacher who likes her job very much, but who dreams of writing full time, has published an acclaimed book. Of course, it’s sold bugger all, in the scheme of big publishing. On the pretext of remaining ordinary, she excuses her reticence to venture forth with a sequel; or, at least, successor. She’s just settling in, cosy in her tracky-daks and with wine at hand, when she hears a car pull up. We see the head and tail lights diffused through the faux, projected, opaque glass wall. Olivia’s flustered and unsettled. There’s a pounding at the door and in walks a brash, handsome, twenty something young man, out of a blizzard. She knew he was coming, sooner or later, but feigns otherwise.

Olivia is conservative in that born upstate, all-American way that isn’t exactly comparable to anything in the Australian experience, so perhaps this defends the characters cooling their heels in Michigan, rather than Thredbo. The comfortable-in-his-own-skin, effusive Ethan shocks and rocks her world from the first, demanding food, taking up residence on the couch and drinking her snaffled wine. Slowly, but surely, she succumbs to his obvious charms. It turns out he’s read her book and they’ve a friend in common. The quietly vain Olivia is easily flattered by the attention and admiration of her work. Ethan makes an offer too good to refuse. He’ll help her put her writing in cyberspace, with all its nebulous, fabulous promise of fame and fortune.

Despite flattering herself with a devotion to serious literature, it’s clear she’s enamoured by this proposition and, notwithstanding some initial, respectable resistance, she surrenders to wild sex with him. But can love really bloom between an old-school book lover, addicted to tactility and even the scent of hardbound tomes, and a blogger whose exaggerated memoirs of his rambunctious love life have made him an instant commodity?

McKenzie and Corr are almost too convincing as lovers. By that I mean they seem utterly at ease disrobing and climbing all over each other. Eason is deft in creating an odd couple who become suddenly even when they bonk; a phenomenon not exactly unknown, I’m led to believe, in the world outside theatre (I’m told there is one). The actors do immense justice to her apparent intention: as Olivia and Ethan, their relationship is completely credible; despite actual and perceived age disparity they find almost as much common ground as they do disputed territory.

But the play isn’t just about Ethan and Olivia. They’re pawns in Eason’s big picture. She asks us to reflect on what the digital explosion has done to relationships. How we find mates. How we relate to and communicate with them. How long we stay with them. This is played out microscopically: Olivia, like Pavlov’s dog, learns to wait while Ethan checks his texts. The contrast is stark and introduced right away. While Olivia is relaxed about the blizzard blowing the internet connection and 4G signal to the four winds, Ethan couldn’t be more anxious. It’s a little contrived, but makes the point.

The compare-and-contrast game doesn’t end there. What has changed in a generation? An awful lot, it seems. The real question is, have we lost more than we’ve gained? Not just the old, but still functional (and arguably superior) technology of the book, in deference to the ebook but even a semblance of what used to be called (not too quaintly) romance? Has sex become as ubiquitous, utilitarian and functional as the iPad? Has the gulf between male and female views of sex narrowed, or widened? Are Venus and Mars mere light-years apart, or in separate galaxies entirely? The only narrowness about these aspects are that it’s a doggedly herterosexual play.

The play also zeroes in on public versus private: do we have anything left that’s truly private anymore, or is the world and our lives just one big Facebook page?

Yes, there’s plenty to chew on, not least the protein-rich performances of the two co-stars. The production design is innovative and exquisitely executed, too. Eason can be grateful. Her play has been in good hands, especially the dexterous pair Moorhouse has attached to her arms, which reach into our hearts and minds.

I strongly recommend Sex With Strangers. Just this once, you won’t even need protection.

The details: Sex With Strangers plays STC’s Wharf 1 theatre until November 24. Tickets on the company website.

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