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Who’s conning whom?

By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review

Here’s a fascinating and disconcerting play — “Sex With Strangers” — that explores love, sex, creativity and con-artistry.

Playwright Laura Eason, director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg and two of San Diego’s most capable actors — Lisel Gorell-Getz and Connor Sullivan — illuminate the issues for playgoers who attend the San Diego Repertory Theatre production through March 19 in the Lyceum Space. The play originated at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2009.

Lisel Gorell-Getz and Connor Sullivan perform in the production playing through March. 19.

Sonnenberg, who was named 2015 Director of the Year by San Diego Theatre Critics Circle, gleefully, relentlessly and deliciously stages this work, rife with sex, suspense and contention.

The script, a battle royale for truth, rarely lets up, and the production is a case where all the other artistic elements fall into place with beauty and precision to support the work: Brian Redfern’s revolving, book-filled settings; Anastasia Pautova’s lived-in, characterful clothes (love the red sweater); Anthony Jannuzzi’s lighting design; and Kevin Anthenill’s sound design and compositions.

A one-hit novel writer named Olivia (Gorrell-Getz), who during the play hits a “big” birthday (presumably 40), is socked away in a snowstorm, alone in a rural Michigan bed and breakfast, hoping to put the finishing touches on a novel that her pessimism dictates will not be a success.

The publishing business has changed, and a series of misbegotten romances has debilitated Olivia’s self-esteem and trust. So she is teaching school near her home in Chicago — it’s spring break.

Connor Sullivan and Lisel Gorell-Getz star in “Sex With Strangers” at San Diego Repertory Theatre. (Photos by Daren Scott)

Along comes the con man — or at least the suspected con man — an incredibly handsome writer named Ethan (Sullivan), who is the commercially successful author of two books titled “Sex With Strangers,” which were on The New York Times bestseller list for five years and have spawned an internet cottage industry of a half-million fans.

In his runaway hit books Ethan chronicled his youthful escapades bedding hundreds of women. Now on the cusp of 30 he is leaving all that behind, he tells Olivia, and creating a new image as a serious star-maker, editor, author and entrepreneur.

Ethan’s arrival and subsequent conquest of Olivia arouse her suspicions, but she succumbs to his animal magnetism (Sullivan is scrumptious in all departments) and his raging intellect.

He’s long been enamored of Olivia and her first novel, no longer in print, ever since he obtained a copy from her former teacher/lover, now a hugely successful novelist. Ethan declares he fell in love with Olivia through meeting her in the book, which like so many first novels is largely autobiographical.

Though he’s currently embroiled in the Hollywood filming of “Sex With Strangers” and cannot linger in Michigan, Ethan is reunited soon with Olivia in Chicago.

“Hmm,” we muse, sitting in the dark. “What’s in it for him? Is he for real? Is Olivia right to be so skeptical?”

All is made clear in Chicago, both in the near term and a year or so hence, after the dust has settled from outrageous betrayal. The play is both fascinating and funny. Gorrell-Getz’s final exit is masterful in its ambivalence.

Playgoers must see this captivating and imperfect play, stacked with brilliant portrayals of enigmatic characters. It’s bound to be talked about for years.

—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. Follow her blog at charlenecriticism.blogspot.com or reach her at charb81@gmail.com.

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