.‘Sex With Strangers’ Explores Modern Boundaries

The timely drama opens at San Jose Stage

A play centered around the ever-growing influence of technology, Sex With Strangers begins under the necessary conditions for its two sole characters to build an interest in each other: a bed and breakfast with no phone service or internet connection.

While young, brashly confident writer Ethan Kane (aka Ethan Strange) meets novelist Olivia Lago, she’s enjoying the lack of distractions from working on her new manuscript, while he worries his followers will think he’s dead. The two exchange playful barbs as Ethan explains his career, built on the success of his stories about (naturally) having sex with strangers.

“It’s incredibly relevant in the impact the internet has had on our lives and relationships,” says Allison F. Rich, who plays novelist Olivia Lago in San Jose Stage Company’s production of Sex With Strangers. The “timely, seductive” drama, also starring Matthew Kropschot as Strange, opens Oct. 15 with previews starting Oct. 12.

At about a decade Ethan’s senior, Olivia is his complete opposite: poor marketing bombed her first novel, and she’s gone completely private with her craft. She responds incredulously to Ethan’s claims, of fame as well as women’s willingness to sleep with him despite (sometimes because of) full knowledge of his publicized exploits. None of this deters Ethan, who reveals he’s actually a big fan of Olivia’s work. By the end of the first scene, she’s given him a list of literary recommendations and he’s given her a tempting proposition.

A two-character drama comes with extra weight to carry from script to stage. 

“You have to keep the ball in the air for the entire show,” Rich explains. “The tête-à-tête is ongoing. It does force you as an artist to really tap in.” 

Playwright Laura Eason’s sarcastic-yet-tender back-and-forth makes for generous material. 

“It keeps you on your toes, in the best ways but also the worst ways. We keep joking that this play kinda directs and acts itself,” Rich says of the attitude she and her co-star have taken toward the script.

In particular, Rich is grateful for how comfortable it’s been to work opposite Kropschot. “He has such a calm and anchored demeanor to him, he’s just been a dream to work with,” she says—the opposite of passionate, impulsive and (in Olivia’s words) “dangerous” Ethan.

“Trust is so huge with this material,” Rich says. The tension in Sex With Strangers revolves largely around the characters’ lack of trust in each other as they navigate the space between writer-as-persona and writer-as-person. Behind the scenes, trust in her co-star gives Rich the space needed to channel more vulnerable experiences from her own life that resonate within the play’s unraveling of insecurities and betrayals.

San Jose Stage Company takes to this dynamic well, as a close-knit and versatile group where artists rotate roles—Rich became associate artist in 2011, served as casting director in 2014 and moved onto associate artistic director in 2018. Sex With Strangers also marks Johnny Moreno’s directorial debut at San Jose Stage, after nearly a decade acting with the company. As such, Rich describes Moreno (who also teaches and directs among SJSU’s Department of Film & Theatre faculty) as “an actor’s director,” commenting on how well he knows her style after years of collaboration (the pair acted across from each other in Venus in Fur, another “two-hander,” during the company’s 2015 season). The rehearsal process went smoothly, Rich says, “already knowing we’re all on the same page.” 

A sense of intimacy between Rich, Kropschot and Moreno has been crucial to exploring the thematic layers of Sex With Strangers. While Ethan and Olivia’s struggles with technology and relevance revolve around literature, Rich sees deep parallels in the art of live theater.

“Entertainment is so easily accessible and instantaneous—then you think about the toll that has on something like theater, that is supposed to be live and in-the-moment. You can’t duplicate it.”

Sex With Strangers

Opens Wed, 7:30pm, $35+ 

The Stage, San Jose

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