Written by Laura Eason, “Sex With Strangers” premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2011 and played off-Broadway three years later. The production now onstage at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix is introduced at curtain time as “Arizona Theatre Company’s presentation of Stray Cat Theatre’s ‘Sex With Strangers,’” but what this co-production really feels like is a momentary return for Actors Theatre, the professional company that styled itself the off-Broadway alternative to the big, mainstream Arizona Theatre Company before closing at the end of 2014.
Partly this is mere nostalgia for the venue, the Herberger’s intimate Stage West, where Actors Theatre performed for most of its 29-year run. Yet “Strangers” is exactly the kind of show we would have expected here, a smart, provocative take on the current cultural moment, jolted to life by the athletic acting of a talented two-person cast.
Director Ron May — also the founding artistic director of the “indie” troupe Stray Cat — keeps this supercharged drama about sex, art and commerce in the digital age bursting with tension, both sexual and otherwise. Harper and Eglen’s chemistry is so intense you can almost smell the pheromones, but they also create compellingly nuanced characters whose motivations aren’t always clear even to themselves.
Without question, part of this play’s appeal is its sexually charged fireworks. And even though all the bom-chicka-wow-wow takes place in the darkness between scenes, Harper and Eglen certainly get in a fair amount of spirited groping. But “Strangers” also leaves theatergoers with a lot to discuss on the way home, particularly about the construction of public identities, an issue that once only affected actual celebrities but is now something everyone with a Facebook account needs to think about.
This is one of those plays that says, “This is how we live now,” underlining both the revolutionary and the atavistic — what’s new and what never seems to change.
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