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ASPEN TIMES: Review: Swipe right on ‘Sex with Strangers’ at Theatre Aspen

ASPEN TIMES: Review: Swipe right on ‘Sex with Strangers’ at Theatre Aspen

He’s a 28-year-old internet celebrity bro and sex blogger. She’s a gifted but frustrated and overlooked novelist nearing 40. What happens when you throw this literary odd couple together in a remote writer’s retreat in snowy backwoods Michigan?

Sex, of course. But also, in Laura Eason’s “Sex with Strangers,” running at Theatre Aspen through Aug. 12, an incisive look at the way we live and love in the digital age.

In the opening moments of the play, Ethan (Patrick Ball) barges in on Olivia (Jessica Robblee) as she is working quietly on a novel she’s sure nobody will ever read. She repeatedly asks, “Who are you?” as this voracious stranger hunts for food in the rustic, book-lined retreat house.

Ethan, known to the masses as “Ethan Strange,” has mastered Internet fame with salacious accounts of sexual misdeeds and a book titled “Sex with Strangers.” He’s up in Michigan to finish a screenplay and begin rebranding himself as a serious literary writer (by developing an app, natch).

Between steamy trips to the bedroom (and the couch, and the bear skin rug, and…) he attempts to convince Olivia that she, too, needs to reinvent herself by embracing the anarchy and deception of the digital world.

Some audience members may cringe with recognition as Ethan searches for a cellphone signal and Wi-Fi and is filled with existential dread as he realizes he’ll have neither for a night and will be unable to post and tweet and snap (“People will think I’m dead!”). Others may see themselves in Olivia the Luddite, with her clunky old laptop and her precious attachment to her privacy.

This smart, sexy dramedy doesn’t have the kinds of belly laughs that Theatre Aspen normally aims for with its summer plays. But it is filled with clever, character-based comedy and psychological insight.

Director Christy Montour-Larson — who also helmed a Curious Theatre production of “Sex with Strangers” in Denver last year — has elicited phenomenal, naturalistic performances from both Robblee and Ball. They’re as real as it gets.

Robblee has several long, silent moments alone onstage where — through simple body language and facial expressions — she speaks volumes about her conflicted emotions. Can she trust Ethan? Should she follow his lead and harness the power of the web for fame?

Ball, meanwhile, nimbly walks the line between charm and smarm. In a lesser actor’s hands, Ethan could be an easily hateable caricature of the internet Lothario and Tinder scumbag. Ball makes us, as an audience, fall for Ethan as Olivia does — in his best moments, he seems so genuine, generous and intelligent that we’re willing to forgive his misogynistic online persona. He insists that his base “Ethan Strange” exploits are a character he’s playing and that the good guy we see in private with Olivia is the real Ethan. Like her, we want to believe him.

Also like Olivia we are “waiting for the asshole to show up” (the subhead of his own book dubs him a “certified asshole,” after all).

We get glimpses of the bad boy, but we don’t quite know. And Olivia, given a taste of online glory, also makes us wonder about her integrity. But that’s the heart of this of-the-moment play: How can we really know anybody? How do we reconcile an IRL identity and an online persona?

“Sex with Strangers” doesn’t give us easy answers or (thank God) hectoring speeches about the Internet toppling civil society. Instead, we get a steamy and complex conversation-starter.