Pictured: CJ Eldred and Vanessa Severo. Photo by Cory Weaver.
By Bec Pennington
March opened at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s Copaken Stage with SEX WITH STRANGERS, a modern tale illustrating the timelessness of human experience within the setting of our recently transformed technological world. As the theatre is located in bustling downtown right at the Power & Light district, parking is scarce, restaurants plentiful. It is recommended that one arrive early and plan to enjoy staying late.
Even at first glance, this stage is obviously impeccably fitted for this production with a focus on detail. Brittany Vasta’s set feels more like something designed for camera work; every electronic fixture is operable, the floor looks like real planking, the walls turn corners where a traditional stage might leave open wings. Exits are through a front door, up a staircase, or down a hallway, and the actors are directed to use them as extensions on the space. The stage mics enhance the actors’ vocal projection just enough for the audience to pick up every word, but Cricket S. Myers sound is so natural, most probably won’t notice it is boosted at all. Lighting is natural except for the few scene changes in which designer Elizabeth Kline gets to play with the Rep’s resources. The overall change from Act 1 to Act 2 draws audience gasps.
It’s refreshing to see the balance of the two characters in this play in believable and thoughtfully written roles: an older but shy woman, a confident but shallow younger man. There’s no cougar trope here; each character’s strengths and weaknesses offset each other, allowing for believable attraction and a balance of power, even as both grasp a bit for control. Their age gap in this modern era is not enough to raise any eyebrows, but generationally different enough to cause some amusing moments. Laura Eason effectively utilizes technology and social media as the central catalyst to understanding how these two very different people approach life.
Vanessa Severo and CJ Eldred have a lot in this script to sink their teeth into, and they do so with relish. Severo’s Olivia is brilliantly developed; her comedic timing is perfect and she manages a soft subtlety in her depiction that is rarely accomplished on stage. Eldred’s Ethan is somewhat awkward in comparison, but not any less skillfully acted. His mannerisms come off as uncalculated, instinctive and believable.
One could chalk a lot of Ethan’s shallow obnoxiousness to his age and experiences, but the red flags still abound, starting with his first entrance. In some epic man-spreading, he slaps his belongings around the room, something akin to an animal marking its territory. He shrugs off social privacy norms and asks probing questions of the strange woman trapped in the space with him, ignoring her obvious discomfort. By the end of Act 1, Ethan reveals a bit more of his character, becoming more vulnerable in his interactions with her, but he’s still willing to trample boundaries, preferring to ask forgiveness than permission. While he seems to genuinely desire to be a good person, the old habits, insecurities and reputation still dominate the man, and his actions vacillate between gentility and asshattery so much that Olivia wonders, as do we, which is the real person. Suspicions of a stranger’s motives are natural and good, but at what point has it grown from simple bumbling interaction to dangerously unhealthy relationship?
Olivia doesn’t share Ethan’s brash confidence. Still stinging from an early professional experience, she’s obviously gunshy of putting herself out in the world again. Comfortably stunted in her solitude, Olivia is annoyed, even alarmed by the man invading her bubble, but he also attracts her. She longs for affirmation and for someone to value her work, a need this new stranger is more than willing to fill. Once ambition is awakened, her posture and her self-advocacy – even her wardrobe – all evolve into something sharper, stronger, somewhat threatening to her counterpart. Does she really like this guy, or was he just useful for jump-starting her back into life?
From start to finish, the story is engaging and impressive, thought-provoking, skillfully told. SEX WITH STRANGERS is not to be missed.
SEX WITH STRANGERS runs through March 25th. For more information visit kcrep.org.