Friday, March 17, 2017

In 'Sex With Strangers," literary careerism threatens to founder on shoals of lust and ambition

Olivia and Ethan bond over writing....
The only time I got an author's autograph in a cheap paperback was when Kurt Vonnegut signed my just-purchased copy of "Mother Night" in an Ann Arbor bookstore.

The book disappeared from my collection decades ago, either lost or just unreturned by a borrower — I forget which. But a warning in Vonnegut's introduction to the paperback edition has stayed with me. After doubting that his books usually had "morals" (I think several can be teased out of the Hoosier Aesop's oeuvre, actually), the author put "Mother Night"'s this way: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

I've always loved the boldness of that first clause: It's not "we will be taken for what we pretend to be, so..." but the absolute "we are what we pretend to be." Either formulation might well apply to Vonnegut's hero, who signs on as an American spy to broadcast on behalf of the Nazis and is unable to shed his success in that role in his post-war life.

The weight of that advice hits home in the course of Laura Eason's "Sex With Strangers," which opened in a Phoenix Theatre production Thursday night. Ethan barges in on a small writer's retreat in Michigan, late for his reservation on account of a blizzard. Immediately he's in conflict with Olivia, an anxious novelist, devoted to the printed word on paper, with a mixed record of success, deep into serious work on her new novel. Flummoxed by a storm-related interruption of connectivity, he nonetheless gains the upper hand at first. He's pumped up about his online presence, cresting on top of billowing numbers and consequent celebrity as the author of memoirish fiction, or fictionalized memoir, titled "Sex With Strangers," being just what it says it is. She's flailing somewhat in self-doubt, fretting over mediocre sales and lukewarm reviews.

..but of course that's not all.
With Ethan, the vexed Vonnegut question is, What is he pretending to be? Is he totally invested  — as an outgrowth of who he really is —  in recollections of predatory sexual behavior, counting on enough women also eager to memorialize their encounters with him to extend his celebrity? Or is he a diamond in the rough, his libido caught up in the viral, readymade marketing of Smashwords and KDP, but yearning for a reputation of old-media respectability in a new-media environment.

Angela Plank and Brandon Alstott are the couple at the center of this intersection of sexual and literary attraction, directed by Bill Simmons with symphonic sensitivity.  The play at first seems like a duet for bagpipes and kazoo, or a playground teeter-totter with the bully holding one end down periodically to disconcert the hapless kid high up on the other end. Ethan dominates at first, pressuring Olivia to call him a dick (she does) and otherwise exhibiting the control that whatever's new and daring always has over the conventional.

Indeed, for a while I was worried that the interview rhythm in the dialogue would weigh the relationship down more than advance it. But Olivia's personal agenda emerges, despite her initial distaste for Ethan. And before long, they get it on, sort of fleshing out the title of Ethan's claim to fame. A mutual respect is crafted from some pretty unpromising material; each seems to find a neediness in the other ready for them to satisfy. Both are guarded about their work, for different reasons.

The first hint of flirtation, where a real connection begins, is adeptly handled. The opening-night audience appreciated, as I did, a gesture that brings Olivia forward as someone who is going to deal with this new acquaintance somewhat on her own terms. Walking in front of Ethan at the end of the initial flirtation, OIivia casually flips her hair back. I don't know if the gesture's in the script or not, but it's perfect.

When the bulk of scenes start taking place on Olivia's home turf, a book-laden apartment, her path forward becomes clearer. It's strenuously nurtured by Ethan, but true to his nature, he pushes his advantage too far. And that gives the play its classic peripeteia — the turn of events that sets up the final situation between the two author-lovers. There's some ambiguity about that situation I won't reveal here; let's just say it has to do with the mystery contained in Vonnegut's warning.

The prolific playwright/director's knowledge seems encyclopedic about a cutthroat world in which literary stature is complicated by shifts in marketable media. Yet she never loses sight of the particularity of this couple's quest to understand each other, both as lovers and colleagues. The performances are true to that difficult process in all respects. Lauren Kreigh's costume designs deserve special mention in truly reflecting the couple's evolving relationship. The music of Prince is evocative in the interludes.

Integrity is not easily defended in many professions, but especially in one where status is so difficult to acquire, maintain and interpret. In the first volume of Paris Review "Writers at Work" interviews, Nelson Algren made a crude comparison that has stuck with me (his writing is loaded with crudeness that sticks with you). The streetwise Chicago bard distinguishes between books a writer writes for himself and those he writes for readers, meaning the market.

"If the book were your own, you'd be satisfied just to have the guy walk down the sidewalk and fall on his head. In a reader's book, you'd have him turn a double somersault." In this play, Ethan comes from the double-somersault world, Olivia from the fall-on-head one. "Sex With Strangers" suggests that this polarity will never be resolved, among either readers or writers. When the writers are also lovers, it's not only their characters who suddenly fall or turn acrobatic.