Anna Gunn, an Emmy winner as Skyler White on Breaking Bad and Geffen Playhouse regular, has taken to the boards as her latest show, Gracepoint, heads to its October premiere on Fox. In Laura Eason’s Sex With Strangers, running at the increasingly essential Second Stage, she plays Olivia, a writer who has retreated to a secluded B&B in Michigan to finish her second novel. It’s a dark and snow-stormy night when Ethan comes stomping in from the cold.
Olivia is on the cusp of 40, wispy and comfortably wrapped in an afghan. Ethan is played by Billy Magnussen, for whom the cusp of 40 is still a considerable way off and who — as anyone knows who saw him as Sigourney Weaver’s gifted boy toy in Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike (he was Spike) — has a body to render women weak and set men’s teeth on edge.
Ethan is a writer as well. The best-seller that gives the play its title is adapted from his raunchy blog recounting a year in which he slept with a different woman each week. Ethan makes Don Juan look like a Shaker. He doesn’t do afghans. He does, however, do Olivia, after convincing her that his persona as the author of Sex With Strangers is an act, that deep down inside, he just wants to write as perfect a novel as her first one, which he can quote even though apparently only about 10 people read it and some said the mean things that turned her into a recluse.
I liked Sex With Strangers more than this precis suggests. For one thing, it’s a very sexy battle of wits — maybe not on the order of Kate and Petruchio or Tracy and Hepburn, but sexy nonetheless. Especially when the playwright reveals Olivia to be rather more complicated than the ambivalent spinster we met when the lights came up. When they’re not sloppy kissing and removing one another’s clothes, Olivia and Ethan take part in a different kind of seduction as he steers her toward success, which she is eager to embrace.
For much of its two-and-a-quarter hours, Sex With Strangers is what I imagine a Neil LaBute play would be like if Neil LaBute were a woman (or a nicer man): relentlessly cynical about the human condition without wallowing in reprehensibility. In the end, however, Eason sells Olivia and Ethan and us short: Sex With Strangers seems to end three times, and none of the resolutions that follow their inevitable falling out has any conviction.
I don’t fault the two actors, who are thoroughly enjoyable to watch despite a somewhat tentative directorial hand from David Schwimmer that, for example, indulges Magnussen’s tendency to push the horny-17-year-old-within just a bit too often. The real problem is that the play is structured like an hourlong TV drama — you can sense the slots for commercials — that never allows these good actors to really cut loose. The way they might in, say, a Neil LaBute play.
The story of Lisa Jura is a miracle and a mystery. She was born in Vienna in 1924 and sent by her doomed family in 1938 to London via the Kindertransport. There she continued her studies as a classical pianist through the war, the Blitz and a concert debut before emigrating to the U.S.
Jura’s daughter, Mona Golabek, inherited her mother’s musical gifts, which are on ample display in The Pianist Of Willesden Lane, the memoir she wrote with Lee Cohen and which has been adapted for the stage by Hershey Felder. She has performed it in L.A. and other cities; it’s having its New York premiere at 59E59 Theatres. The set consists mainly of a Steinway grand piano and a few gilded picture frames upon which we see changing images from life before, during and after the war.
Golabek, who has a radiant yet prim visage, moves between areas on the stage from which she tells her mother’s story, and the piano, where she plays extended selections from her mother’s repertoire, which ranges from Grieg to works by Mahler, Bach, Beethoven and Scriabin. Her playing is impassioned and delicate and all the more remarkable because she is often speaking to us in and around her playing.
There is some great tech at work as well, since her playing and speaking often have an orchestral accompaniment in the background. It’s a rare and moving 75 minutes of great music and haunted memory. You’ll be tempted to search out recordings of Lisa Jura, but you’ll search in vain.
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