“Sex with Strangers” at Renaissance isn’t hot or sexy

Nick Narcisi and Marti Gobel star inb Sex with Strangers.

The proverb is over 300 years old – “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

There is also the axiom – “don’t promise more than you can deliver.”

They both apply, sadly, to the opening production of the season for Renaissance Theaterworks, Laura Eason’s “Sex With Strangers” that opened over the weekend.

Let’s be clear about all of this – this play is about sex between a 40-something writer, Olivia (Marti Gobel) and a 20-something boy toy Ethan (Nick Narcisi).

She’s stuck at a writer’s workshop in a snowbound cabin in Michigan.The weather is so severe she is all alone, until the incessant knock on her door announces the arrival of Mr. Smooth.

She is the author of a book that hardly anybody read, although Ethan claims to have done so, also claims that he thought it was a “great book.”

He wrote a book called “Sex with Strangers.” a recounting of his pledge to have sex with a different woman each week for a year, a book that spent a long time on the bestseller lists. He made money and they’re making a movie of his book. She sold a few copies and

He flirts, she flirts back, he seduces, she lets herself be seduced and they are off to bed, again and again and again.

And here’s where the problems arise.

All of the publicity leading up to opening night was focused on the sexual tension and lust between these two characters. The photo for the show was a steaming embrace between Ms. Gobel and Mr. Narcisi. But that photo paled in comparison to the onslaught of “intimacy choreography,” a new concept sweeping the world of theater.

It applies to scenes of sexuality that take place on a stage and the idea was born, in part, due to some instances of inappropriate behavior during rehearsals in Chicago and elsewhere. The idea was to choreograph intimate scenes so that actors would feel safe and everybody would respect boundaries.

Renaissance made a big deal about the choreography, hiring highly respected fight choreographer Christopher Elst as the Intimacy Designer and Tonia Sina, a leader in this movement as Intimacy Consultant.

A play called “Sex With Strangers,” the older woman/younger man thing, good looking people – all the elements for the kind of romantic story you might pick up waiting in line at the grocery store. Everything is on the plate, except for one thing.

There is no heat from this fire.

Ms. Gobel is one of the best actors in this city and Mr. Narcisi shows promise, but the two of them together might as well be a couple of strangers telling slightly off-color jokes to each other.

If it’s possible to turn sex into a boring experience, this play manages to do it and the blame can be directly laid at the steps of this “intimacy choreography.”

In real life, this kind of sexual exploration is full of excitement and wonder and joy. In this show, the sex is strictly by the numbers.

Right hand goes here. Left hand goes there. His lips go here. Her lips go there. His hand touches her butt. Her hand reaches for his zipper.

If porn were this boring it would not be the gazillion dollar business that it is.

I think it’s great that the actors felt comfortable having the designers choreograph their every intimate second. But that choreography has taken everything good about sex and thrown it out the window.

This whole thing loses touch with one of the two most important parts of any production – the audience. I think it’s probably safe to say that nobody in the opening night audience ever had sex like this.

Ms. Gobel is an exciting actor and she has created many memorable roles. Yet Director Mallory Metoxen, one of the brightest young directors in this city, has decided to put shackles on her in this play and she has taken a woman who is full of fire and passion and reduced her to a wooden caricature.

There are a lot of issues explored in this play – the tech savvy world of young people, the identity of self, the best definitions of success.

But when the most important part of the play turns out to be the most bland, it hardly pays to travel any further hoping that the road will get much more interesting.

Renaissance decided to tell us all about “intimacy choreography” and knowing all about it, ruined my expectations for a great evening of theater.

And my disappointment was deepened when the promise of a steamy and exciting story was empty.

About davebegel@gmail.com

Theater Critic in Milwaukee.
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One Response to “Sex with Strangers” at Renaissance isn’t hot or sexy

  1. Joseph says:

    Are you serious??? A lack of chemistry is NOT the fault of the intimacy consultant. I applaud this company for taking great care with a play that requires it for the safety and comfort of its actors. Shame on you.

    Like

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