I might have got there relatively late in the season, but there was no way I was not going to see Sex With Strangers. A rom-com? With books in? Genre fiction on the stage? The only way it could have been clearer that this was my sort of play was if the actors had actually had “this play is for Jodi” tattooed on their faces.
(Fair warning – because this play is in my academic
area of speciality, I’m going to nerdle a lot about it. Be prepared.)
Maybe the fact that it was such a Jodi-play makes me predisposed to be highly critical and nitpicky. I don’t know. But Sex With Strangers bothered me a lot, largely because it left me cold. If there is one thing romance should not do, it is leave you cold. You should be saying “awww” a lot. Even in pieces that don’t have the guaranteed happy ending of the romance genre proper, you should want things to turn out for the best. This means that you should like the characters – at least a little bit. And this, I think, was my big problem with Sex With Strangers.
Let’s start with the less egregious of the two offenders here, the character of Olivia (Jacqueline McKenzie). Her level of neuroticism was absolutely suffocating. She was practically hysterical with it, especially in the first act – I almost wanted to slap her and tell her to snap out of it. I understand writers being precious about their work and being unwilling to let unfriendly eyes see their work: I’ve felt that myself (what writer hasn’t?). But the fact that three reviews – three, which weren’t even especially negative – managed to cripple her for such a long period of time? Really? A writer who wants to cut their reader out of their work altogether isn’t really a writer at all. If a book is written and nobody reads it, has it really been written? And if she is so unwilling to show her work to anyone, how has she managed to get so “fucking brilliant”, as Ethan says? It is pretty much impossible to improve without a) practice, and b) feedback. I found her total insecurity not only incredibly frustrating, but far beyond the suspension of disbelief.
I think her insecurity was intended to undermine her position as “self-assured older woman”, and in that sense, although it was clumsy, it worked. It turned her into a damsel in distress, all ready for Ethan (Ryan Corr) to swoop in to save. And swoop in he did: except he is not exactly a knight in shining armour. This is not to say that all romance heroes should be perfect, courtly men with no flaws ever who fix all their lady’s problems. Far from it. Anyone who has read a romance novel ever will know that heroes are frequently far more damaged than their heroines. Heroes have also done some pretty godawful things, but at the end of the day, you should at least believe that they are good, that on some level, they deserve the heroine (even if the heroine is totally irritating). I couldn’t believe that about Ethan. Not for a second.
Let’s start with his book, Sex With Strangers. A guy that’s made his millions by basically exploiting women and writing about it? (I know he’s all like, “it was consensual! they were willing!” but let’s face it, what’s he was doing is essentially pick up artistry.) The fact that he continually admitted he was an arsehole didn’t make him charming. It just made him self-aware. And why on earth was Olivia supposed to believe him when he was all like, “I was a dick to every other girl I’ve ever slept with ever, but I’ll be cool and awesome with you”? Just because he helped her put her book online, even though she specifically asked him several times not to? Ethan has a thousand arsehole red flags, and this, I think, was the biggest one. When Olivia said no to him – no, she didn’t want to put her book online; no, she wanted to go through traditional publishing; no, she didn’t want him to read her book – he either bullied her into submission or just went ahead and did what he wanted anyway. The guy that does not respect a single one of your boundaries? Yeah, that’s romantic. And when he was all like, “you owe me!” in the second act? I’m amazed Olivia didn’t yell, “fuck you!” back at him. I nearly did.
I don’t think Ryan Corr’s performance helped Ethan’s case any. Jacqueline McKenzie did a good job of making the Olivia that existed beyond her neurosis visible (what little there was), but Corr’s performance foregrounded Ethan’s douchebaggery. He was shouting all the time, which I think was supposed to read as “gen Y jackass”, but also frequently read as “intimidating bully”. If there really was supposed to be a clear division between Ethan Kane and his evil alter ego Ethan Strange, it wasn’t terribly visible – probably the only moment where it was was the moment when he took a phone call from a Vegas club promoter, and turned into such an OTT parody of himself I’m surprised Olivia didn’t throw him out her window. The play is not especially subtle with its portrayal of Gen Y in particular, and Corr didn’t help. He was the Gen Y representative that people from all the other generations bitch about: rude, abrasive, and addicted to technology.
I also had a few problems with the structure of the play – sex scenes were basically used as scene changes, when they should have probably advanced the plot at least a little – but I don’t think I would have noticed half so much if the characters were more likeable. On one level, I understood the fantasy – a rich, attractive young guy who thinks your writing is amazing? sign me up! – but these characters were a little too close to the archetypes that gave us Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey for comfort: neurotic woman, man who has no concept of “boundaries”.
Maybe I’m too used to analysing things as romances, but Sex With Strangers just did not work for me. I wanted funny, romantic fun with books in. I wanted to say “awwww”. I wanted to want things to turn out well. What I got was a play about two unlikeable people who fuck each other a lot and fuck each other up.