sex with strangers @ steppenwolf, 17 february 2011.

It’s easy to characterize Sex with Strangers, which tells the story of an affair between an older female novelist fearful of sharing her second book with the public and a younger, aspiring writer who has experienced commercial success for a tell-all blog about his sexual exploits, as a “look at those young people and their mass cultural depravity!” kind of play.

Sally Murphy and Stephen Louis Grush in Sex with Strangers.

At first, Laura Eason’s play indeed seems to be a distopian screed about a contemporary digital culture in which tweets, bleeps, blogs, and posts— the continual communications network of cellular, wireless, networked communication—overwhelms intimacy by exploding it into public view. But the play is actually something far different. It is not so much about sex and strangers as it is about the intimacy of friendship. And it is perhaps most of all about that space between strangerness and friendship. How do two people cross this divide? What moves them from distanced, distrustful formality to immediacy and intimacy? Is that space a chasm that we leap? A moat we cross on a drawbridge? A ravine we dangle over? An undisclosed location in which we first, under cover of darkness, disclose our selves to each other? Most of all, are the new communication technologies of the digital altering that space between strangers and friends. When you “friend” people on Facebook, Myspace, Friendster, etc. what does this mean not only about becoming friends, but about what it means to be strangers? Is this a privatization of public space or a publicizing of private identity?

The acting in this duet performance by Sally Murphy and Stephen Louis Grush is a stamina workout as the play explores these questions. Since the two characters are writers, the play also connects to larger questions of art, especially writing, in negotiations of the interpersonal. And since the two characters are published writers, hovering over the private spaces in which the play takes place (a bed and breakfast during a snowstorm, an apartment in Chicago) is the larger realm of commercial exchange and its effects on art-making as well as self-making and friend-making.

The play, which at first seems to contrast an older, print-based generation from a younger, online generation, turns out to be as much more about generational continuity as about rupture. It is much more about the ways in which writing carries with it vexing questions of shared intimacy from analog to digital culture. In fact, the play might better be called Writing with Friends. The steamy affair between the younger man and older woman turns out to be less about the sex and more about the desires for public identity for which the two characters long. The young man projects the idealism of the non-commercial artist onto the older woman, whose unpublished second novel he imagines as a pure work of art against his own sordid success. As he slowly pulls her into his world of agents and publishers (even as he tries to keep her at a distance from it), his is an effort to remake himself through his intimate relationship with her. He will become, by association, through intimacies of love and friendship, a serious writer rather than a playboy blogger. The “boy gone wild” will become a man gone artist.

The older woman, meanwhile, slowly discovers that she desires the commercial success and stability that has eluded her. Half-consciously, Eason suggests, she is using the young man to gain access to the new culture of the digital and secure her own fame. Though she resists the publicized culture of sharing sexual exploits by which the man has made his fame, she agrees to post her new novel as a blog, meet with his agent, and change her novel to secure more fame. This makes her, perhaps, not so different from the young women who sleep with the young man so that they can post their own tell-alls on their own blogs, thus securing their own public identities through private exploits. Or so Eason’s play implies, not condemning any of these women for their decisions, but rather revealing the ways in which the contemporary mingling of private sexual intimacies and professional or public desires is neither new, nor easily avoided by even those who think, on the surface, that they want to avoid it.

The twisted wireless signals of intimacy and publicity, private bodies entwined and public identities out on the network, makes this not so much a play about strangers having sex so much as about the strangeness of intimacy. And the play’s final scenes suggest that as the boundaries between intimacy and publicness change, as the household and the agora grow more seamless, we might, we must, write ourselves into being while poised at the threshold between feeling amorous and feeling agape.


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