First Nighter: 'Sex With Strangers' Is Sexy With Straining

Olivia (Anna Gunn), who's pushing 40, and 28-year-old Ethan (Billy Magnussen) meet kinda-sorta cute. On a dark and stormy night, she's already ensconced in the comfy lobby of an upper Michigan bed-and-breakfast when he arrives later than the now-absent proprietress expected him.

For the first few minutes, he's cheerfully brash. She's initially standoffish. But since Laura Eason calls her tense romantic comedy Sex With Strangers, audiences can be forgiven for jumping to the correct conclusion that these strangers -- they're both writers -- won't waste too much time before having torrid sex with each other.

Actually, on the Second Stage stage they start tearing each other's clothes off to reveal their buff bodies sooner than it seems Olivia would allow. Gunn and Magnussen are so good at what they're doing and have the sort of chemistry together that would shatter a rack of test tubes that ticket buyers may not object too loudly the predictability.

Indeed, lithe and limber Gunn, known to couch potatoes from Breaking Bad, and Magnussen, having already done stud duty in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, so assiduously keep on keeping on that spectators will likely continue overlooking the numerous soft spots in Eason's plot.

Some years earlier, Olivia published a novel into which she poured heart and soul with only middling sales and critical results. Now she's writing a novel for her eyes only. Ethan, who happens to be a fan of Olivia's debut work, is himself riding the bestsellerdom crest as a result of a non-fiction volume--to be adapted for the silver screen -- that's based on a blog he started when he was 19. It chronicled his wild and evidently disgusting experiences with women he picked up on a nightly basis.

Although Olivia makes Ethan promise he won't read her new opus, which she's attempted to hide in the B&B's public area, he does so anyway. He admires it so much that, despite her great dismay, he insists she meet his agent and pursue publication. In something of a return broken promise, Olivia reads Ethan's tell-all-and-then-some as well. Then she goes on to read blogs launched by his vengeful victims that portray him as even more execrable.

Eason writes snappy dialog and has created vibrant characters for her two-hander, but she's already straining credulity before act one ends by way of Olivia's fast tumble between the sheets and the speed with which she accepts Ethan's violating her wishes about reading her manuscript. It's virtually a form of date rape.

With the second act Eason goes on to add a couple more questionable twists. In one, she has Olivia eavesdrop on a phone call during which Ethan crudely chats with a friend about at least one woman from his past exploits. Again, Olivia lets what she overhears ride longer than seems believable. For his part, Ethan who--after insisting Olivia confer with his agent--becomes upset when the outcome of that introduction is a contract with venerable FSG. Then why bring novelist and agent together in the first place?

Publishing cognoscenti will recognize FSG as Farrar, Straus and Giroux, not a house at which noses turn up. And that's not the only literary reference in a play including lots of book banter that might not engage those who haven't followed the current decade's rise of e-books and fall of pubberies' strongholds. Names like Junot Diaz and Jonathan Lethem drop with thuds. There isn't anything intrinsically wrong with Olivia's rereading Marguerite Duras (certainly not in our dumbed-down age), unless it comes across as unsolicited showing-off, which it somehow does here.

While the subject of book loving is on the table, what about the coffee table in Andromache Chalfant's idea of Olivia's office/living room, where the second act unfolds? The first act B&B set is perfectly fine, but if Olivia is such a reader, why are there so few books in view in her ground-floor apartment? A few laden bookshelves and a stack here and there don't do it. Furthermore, why would her coffee table bear only a large volume on Giacometti?

When Ethan does his about-face in regards to his agent--now he wants Olivia to let him hawk her book on a new literary app he's developed -- he tries to convince her that the previously vaunted agent Susan will try to reshape her book into a more commercial property. That's a laugh for anyone who knows the impeccable FSG reputation and what they're likely to allow.

Curiously, however, commercial molding is precisely what Eason is doing in Sex With Strangers. She crafts Olivia as a circumspect woman pitted against a young man with a history of mistreating the opposite sex. behavior that may not be entirely history, after all. Nevertheless, she's straining to have the pair live happily ever after.

Do they? Will they? That won't be revealed here. Only know that just about every time the playwright gives Olivia reason to act rationally in the face of Ethan's persistent immaturity, she pulls back. At one point, Olivia says to Ethan, "You're very persuasive." He sure is, but were Eason being true to herself, Ethan wouldn't be quite that persuasive. On the other hand, Gunn and Magnussen, as directed with unflagging vigor by David Schwimmer, are very, very, very persuasive. For that, Eason should be extremely grateful.

One last remark: The comment that "critics want to be kingmakers" is wafted and goes unchallenged--as if an indisputable truth has been uttered. What actually obtains is that critics have no desire to be kingmakers. Those this reviewer knows do believe, however, that it's their rightful duty to point out when the monarch is only partially dressed.

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