For actor Kyle Coffman, Laura Eason’s play “Sex with Strangers” has everything—“It will make you laugh, get you angry, make you cry, make you empathize and make you think,” he said. “What more can you ask of a night at the theater?”
Though the play is set in a bed and breakfast, executive producing director of Philadelphia Theatre Company Sara Garonzik urges audiences to look past the illustration on the program.
“It’s not just some cute little philander of a man and a woman,” Garonzik said. “There are all kinds of themes of trust and the big divide in age, and digital versus analog.”
“Sex With Strangers,” runs at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre until May 8, and is co-produced with George Street Playhouse. The story focuses on a blossoming relationship between two writers of different generations. Olivia, played by JoAnna Rhinehart, is a middle-aged teacher afraid of receiving negative reviews for her work. Ethan, portrayed by Coffman, is a spontaneous 27-year-old who became a bestseller sensation after electronically publishing his sexual exploits.
One of the main conflicts in the play is the way technology manipulates both characters.
“What they go through is a microcosm of what humanity is going through, the struggle to make truly human connections in a world where we’re already so connected via screens and devices,” Coffman said. “Yes, it allows many benefits and comforts, but it also allows for actions without consequences and a general sense of irresponsibility. The great thing about these characters is that they are so far on the opposite ends of the spectrum, and I imagine Eason was trying to highlight that neither one of them is right or wrong, that they’re just prisoners of their respective generations.”
“The brilliance of this script, and any well-written piece of literature, is that there will always be different elements that will be more relatable to people of different educational backgrounds, ethnicities, life experiences, et cetera,” Rhinehart added. “The goal is to create an open dialogue and possibly come to a greater understanding of how we are all interrelated and to embrace the differences.”
Garonzik is concerned that not enough plays by female writers are being produced, so every season, she focuses on finding at least one.
“I think Laura’s play is super smart,” Garonzik said. “She has a really smart business sense about her as well. She knows that if she wrote a play with a title like ‘Sex with Strangers,’ then you are going to get a lot of people in a regional theater.”
Although Coffman and Rhinehart portray caricatures of their respective generations, the casting was an unexpected outcome for Garonzik. Because she was looking for a “stereotypical hunk,” Coffman was the last person Garonzik expected to walk into the audition.
“We weren’t looking for a little guy with blue hair and a black leather jacket, per se,” Garonzik said. “But then Kyle walked in, and he was so comfortable in his own skin. And so physical that we thought, ‘Oh my god, there is something very compelling about him.’ We thought he was someone who was very sexy, centered and improbable.”
“I love being able to play all the colors of such a well-written relationship, from the beginning to the end and all the shades of gray in between,” Coffman added. “Plus, Ethan’s got really cool and comfortable clothes.”
For the role of Olivia, Garonzik wanted the actor to be “utterly believable as a writer” and enjoy the character’s need to start living again. After reading the script, Rhinehart instantly connected with her character’s inner struggles.
“Once I read the amazingly well-written script, I was able to easily connect to Olivia’s insecurities, loves, desires, hopes and dreams,” Rhinehart said. “Good theater, great theater is timeless, has a way of merging diverse thoughts and feelings, builds a strong sense of international community, opens hearts and minds to greater possibilities. A wonderful unifying tool for humankind.”
Katelyn Evans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.