Steppenwolf’s ‘Sex with Strangers’ may make you revisit your privacy settings

Sally Murphy and Stephen Louis Grush: two intimate strangers

In watching Sex with Strangers, Laura Eason’s provocative new play exploring how the online world has impacted the way we interact with each other, my mind started spinning. So please bear with me as I do a brain dump …

I’m not sure if you’re aware, dear readers, but I blog. And after having blogged nearly 10 years (not just here, but in other places), I’ve littered a permanent life trail on the interwebs — catalogued chronologically and easily searchable. I’d like to think I was a different person a decade ago, so you’ll note on my blog’s “about” section, I included a disclaimer that says: “A word of warning: should you choose to dig into my archived posts, I claim no responsibility for my younger, dumber self. So proceed with caution, and all that.”

But should we claim accountability for our pasts when we’ve willingly documented it for all to read and judge?

Eason explores this struggle by presenting us with Ethan Strange (Stephen Louis Grush), a 24 year-old online celebrity who’s made a name for himself by blogging about his sexual conquests. Like most viral blogs that involve a ridiculous social experiment with a one-year deadline, such as the woman who decided to do everything Oprah recommended, or Julie of “Julie and Julia” who attempted to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s “The Art of French Cooking,” Ethan set out to sleep with a new stranger every week for a year, and then blog about it in graphic detail. This blog led to a devoted fanbase, a New York Times bestseller and a movie option.

But Ethan’s not really the complete asshole he’s presented himself on the www to be. He’s actually a sweet, smart and endearingly arrogant guy who appreciates reading, writing and wine. This blogging thing was just an experiment — not really who he is at the core.

Or is it?

In an oddly contrived setup (one of the weaker moments of Eason’s well-constructed play) involving a snow storm and a secluded writer’s retreat buried in the rurals of Michigan that’s cut off from all wireless access, Ethan happenstancily meets level-headed Olivia, a talented writer who’s paralyzed by the fear of publishing her latest work due to the lukewarm response her first book received. Ethan, however, is enamored by her talent and, therefore, by Oliva. Naturally, Oliva is weary about Ethan’s advances, as he’s rather up front about his smarmy online persona, yet she gives in and they have hot sex at every scene change. After much coaxing, Ethan then convinces Olivia to let him post her latest work online under a pseudonym, and doing so changes their lives dramatically.

But Olivia has a nagging problem that only intensifies when she gets online and researches Mr. Strange: how does she reconcile the guy with whom she’s fallen in love with this online, misogynistic jerk? “That’s in the past,” he tells her when confronted. “I’ve moved on.” And this is where it gets interesting.

In the age of YouTube, Facebook, blogging and reality TV, our private lives have become a form of entertainment. We no long live in a bubble, where our 20s are forgotten memories in a photo album. Ethan represents this shift as the millennial whose youth was spent oversharing online. Olivia, who’s nearing 40, views the interwebs as a means to check email, and would rather lug out a 20-lb book from the shelf rather than download it on an iPad.

Yet even technophobe Olivia is seduced by the high-speed, online lifestyle after she realizes the advantages it could offer her writing career. Is anyone immune?

Oh my goodness. I’m rambling. I warned you!

I think Eason offers some really intriguing observations about many concepts, including compromise, intimacy, the generational gap and accountability — and how they are all redefined by the online age. As much as we may protest, the way we interact has changed dramatically, and we have to adapt and create new rules.

The acting, directing and stagecraft are all first-rate, as one would expect from Steppenwolf. Eason’s writing is witty, conversational and entertaining. This play hit a nerve with me, obviously. So much so that this morning I revised my Facebook privacy settings — and perhaps may have deleted a few of the more incriminating blog posts from my past.

I’m trying something new for 2011 — a CTA Index Rating. I’m going to rate each show on a ten-point scale. This way, I will be able to more effectively track my theatre-going habits and history.

CTA Index Rating: 9.5 (Topical subject matter matched with clever writing makes for an entertaining and thought-provoking play. If only the setup wasn’t so contrived.)

“Sex with Strangers” plays through May 15 at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre. More info here >

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