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Theater review: Lust, love and lies in the digital age in 'Sex with Strangers'

Renegade Theater's opening night audience for "Sex with Strangers" was ready to come in out of the snow and cold for a hot evening of theater. The opening scene, however, threw them right back into a wintry mix.

With a blizzard raging outside, a woman, completely alone in a remote Michigan B&B, settles in on the couch. Suddenly, there is an insistent knock on the door. Now, of course, the plot could go the path of it being an evil maniac outside come to do her harm. There soon could be axes, blood and gore (and Renegade has been known to make liberal use of all three).

Instead, however, the story evolves into an intricate give and take between Olivia (Carolyn LePine) and Ethan (Cade Kowalczak) about love, loss, sex, writing, publishing, cyberspace and ultimately about whether two such very different people have any chance of building an unlikely relationship. Director Julie Ahasay deftly "choreographs" this complex character "pas de deux."

Ethan, a self-described "asshole" is a cocky, good-looking 28-year-old cyber king who has made a fortune with his "Sex with Strangers" blog, turned novel, turned screenplay. He chronicles his year of sleeping with a different woman every week, some based on reality and others on his extremely active imagination.

Olivia, pushing 40, is a teacher who had written a novel several years before that received mixed reviews and never took off. She is working on a second book that she seems destined never to show to anyone.

To Olivia's astonishment, Ethan reveals that he has read and loved her first book, even quoting lines from the novel to her. Ethan is about to launch a new app for writers, and he proposes that she give her second book to him. He promises he will give her more readers online than she would ever have with archaic old-fashioned paper and hard covers.

The play starts off with ample humor when Ethan goes into a tailspin upon finding out they have no working Wi-Fi. When Olivia suggests he could just use the land-line telephone, he looks at her like she is some sort of a relic from the Dark Ages. The snappy bantering between the two of them elicited lots of laughter.

LePine and Kowalczak are both believable with their characterizations of these two deeply flawed people. Each brings a total sense of inhabiting these characters, bringing a richness and depth to their roles with nuanced line readings and physical style.

Their chemistry with each other, however, is less convincing. It is important that we see that they have an immediate, strong physical attraction for each other. Their romantic clutches seemed at times to be forced and somewhat stilted. What should be torrid is too often tepid.

Author Laura Eason, a writer for television's "House of Cards," has written an engaging script with twists, turns, role reversals and power shifts. With everyone's identity in the digital age evolving faster than we can keep up, the show seems timely, fresh, and, at the same time, frightening.

If You Go

What: Renegade Theater's "Sex with Strangers"

Where: Zeitgeist Teatro 222 East Superior Street

When: Feb. 22-24, March 1-3 & 8-10 at 7:30 p.m. March 4 at 2 p.m.

Tickets: (218) 336-1417 or