Human Race Theatre presents steamy “Sex with Strangers”

By Jacqui Theobald

It takes about twelve minutes for the first sexual involvement between the two writers to begin; it takes two acts to understand how insecurities, trust, and support are equally dynamic and exciting.

The 2009 play “Sex with Strangers” by Laura Eason features a near forty-something writer, Olivia, played by Jennifer Johansen and a twenty-eight-year-old writer, Ethan, played by the very chiseled Ben Palacios, who meet at a snowed-in writers’ retreat.

As titillating as the sexual scenes are, and they are, it is the give and take of their relationship that provides the greater impact of this show.
Produced by Tara Lail, “Sex” has played all over the world since its Chicago debut. Director Greg Hellems calls the play a mystery of relationships. Both he and the actors acknowledge the careful attention they have given to making sure the vulnerable actors feel safe. The entire production has been guided by ‘The Pillars’ with four precepts: context, communication, consent, and choreography.

Hellems is aware of the #MeToo movement on social media and is intent on avoiding any hint of threatening behavior.

Is there steam heat on stage? Is it in some way both hot and tasteful? Amazingly, between director, actors and technical designers it is.

In a wide-ranging pre-opening exclusive interview, Palacios described the intense vulnerability of getting naked on stage being in ‘emotional quicksand.’ Johansen explained the stage direction given as ‘Clothes begin to come off. Sex is imminent.’ “Greg gave us free rein, helping us craft our version.”

To reach that point the ‘four pillars’ brought security. The sex scenes are all precisely choreographed, which does not in any way decrease their eroticism, rather enhances it. The audience will be shucking off sweaters.

The restraint of the scenes, or what is not quite visible occurs because an actual bed is somewhat hidden behind a see-through bookcase.

The larger story is the diverse thinking between her identity with actual books and his with the internet.
In an interesting generational twist, it is he who supports her emotional insecurities and shows her how to become productive on-line.  It is only when each becomes driven by their own greed, both financially and literarily, that the layers of mystery are apparent.

President and Artistic Director of The Human Race Kevin Moore described the arc of the story with crossed arms, hands pointing to either side, indicting how the two characters change means and goals, passing each other going in opposite directions.

In their in-person interview, Jen and Ben were thoughtful and earnest and quietly open. On stage as Olivia and Ethan they are almost ferociously energetic expressing passion, anger, arrogance and pain. Johansen and Palacios shared their vulnerable feelings about these scenes.

Both actors commented on the technical and design staff’s rare verbal interaction with them, as all were mutually complimentary.  They expressed admiration and support to and from Lexi Muller, Production Stage Manager and Jacquelyn Duncan, Production Assistant.

The music, all original compositions created and played by Jay Brunner is almost another character and certainly adds to the atmosphere and evolution of the story. It is beautiful and descriptive worth hearing again.

Adam Crowell is Technical Director and Scenic Designer Eric Moore is Head Carpenter/Charge Artist. Heather Powell is Props Master. They have created and built an ordinary living room set with extraordinary flexibility. Including a number of genuine book-filled shelves, the set serves as the winter B&B, then her Chicago apartment. Even the cushions look digital.

Costume Designer is Stormie Mac, challenged to select ordinary clothes, easily managed and later over the year-and-a-half time frame of the play, to reflect differences in success and expectations. Susanne Kern is Costume Shop Manager with Andrew Ian Adams on Wardrobe.

The Lighting Design is by the ever proficient and professional John Rensel, with Rick “Rico” Stewart as Production Electrician.  Lighting is sometimes subtle and occasionally dramatic, supporting the emotional flow.

So what’s the mystery Hellems talks about?  Is Ethan, the hugely ambitious internet and film boy wonder, using Olivia? Or once she tastes the success he guided, has she taken advantage of his generosity? He has not been able to hide his very active sex life with many strangers, as well as his disrespectful comments about women.

He has said he wants a durable relationship with her. Can she believe it? Should she move on, professionally and personally? Who is the jerk and who is the hero?

The audience gets to draw its own conclusions.

Many technicians as well as actors with the Human Race are graduates of the Wright State Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures and have effectively powerful connections, a network of sorts. They appreciate the skills and creativity and contributions of their peers.

Laura Eason, the playwright has written 20 plays, original work and adaptation, a musical-book writer and screenwriter, according to the HRT program. It is her experience as a screenwriter that explains the wonderfully brisk dialog. She wrote on seasons two and three of Beau Willimon’s House of Cards on Netflix.

Praise is due to both Hellems for keeping a two-person play moving dynamically, and to the actors with their good diction for keeping it clear and understandable.

Many references to current writers, publisher FSG (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), add to this ultimate smart play.

The Loft Theatre is at 126 N. Main St., Downtown Dayton. Performances of “Sex With Strangers” continue through February 18. For show times and specific ticket information call 937-228-3037 or go to ticketcenterstage.com or www.humanracetheatre.org.

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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