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Sexual tensions among born-again tent revivalists and godless writers are the mighty twin engines powering Signature Theatre’s current pair of shows: the seldom-staged adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ 1927 novel Elmer Gantry and Laura Eason’s sharp and enveloping 2011 two-hander Sex With Strangers. Had I not seen them both the same day, their curious similarities might have eluded my notice: While their modes and motifs are as different as Guys and Dolls is from Girls, each is, in its bones, a romance. Both involve a scandalous bestselling novel: Lewis’ truthiness-sprinkled yarn about a horndog huckster clergyman was denounced in its time as the work of Satan, while Sex with Strangers is the title of a book within Eason’s play about its author’s maybe-fictionalized, maybe-not bad behavior with women. Both shows trace a gradual transfer of power from an initially cocksure man to an initially circumspect woman. And neither one climaxes just where or how it seems it might or should.
Gantry, in fact, is nearly undone after two high-spirited hours by a grafted-on plot twist right out of Chinatown (please let that masterpiece never become a musical) and a curt, unsatisfying denouement. Strangers, meanwhile, wrings one last bolt of pleasure from all the stuff it leaves on the table. But then anyone who’s ever been in a relationship knows that beginnings and middles are a hell of a lot easier than endings.
Gantry, for those who haven’t read the book or seen the substantially different 1960 movie, is a fallen preacher-turned-traveling salesman. He hears the call anew the moment he catches sight of Sister Sharon Falconer, a proselytizer modeled after the famous evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. It’s a matter of the flesh, not the spirit, at least at first. She rebuffs him, but after his unsolicited testimonial at one of her revival meetings raises the spirits of all present—not to mention the collection-plate take—she recognizes in Elmer an equal and welcomes him into her ministry. His first order is to spike the troupe’s whitebread hymns with some color, in the form of Ashley Buster, Daphne Epps, and especially Nova Y. Payton, who powered Signature’s productions of Dreamgirls and Hairspray with her Olympian pipes. “Satan shouldn’t have all the fun,” Elmer says. (The stiff-hipped “Shine” and the more viscerally joyous “On the Road” are the two numbers that act as the troupe’s before and after.) The crowds get bigger and the troupe’s engagements in each metropolis—Sioux City, Salina, Topeka, Fort Smith—get longer.
This examination of religion-as-entertainment gives Gantry a surprising weight and resonance. While Sister Sharon holds out, Paula (Jessica Lauren Ball), a young member of the choir, offers Elmer hard-to-refuse earthly comforts. As Sharon, Mary Kate Morrissey makes it difficult—intentionally, I reckon—to assess whether she’s a true believer or just a talented opportunist, like Elmer. The show benefits from this tension.
Signature leader Eric Schaeffer directed Gantry once before, in 1998, but this update has the considerable asset of Charlie Pollock, an honest-to-God former pastor for a New Jersey church, in the title role. Burt Lancaster was the star who played Elmer onscreen, but Pollock’s slinky athleticism and his seductive way of down-tuning the last word of a line make it feel like Matthew McConaughey’s part. You wish he didn’t have to get saved.
Dan Conway’s minimalist set is all brown hardwood—appropriate for the Dust Bowl milieu. It seems like there should be some visual representation of the escapism-or-is-it-ecstasy these poor farmers find in Elmer and Sharon’s tent, but believing in what you cannot see is the essence of faith.
There’s plenty of fore- and afterplay in Eason’s Sex With Strangers, but the issues of consent and violation this sublime literary dramedy grapples with are intellectual, not carnal. It’s a tale of two writers—one 28, swaggering, and rich, the other 40ish, reflective, and vulnerable—who share a snowed-in bed and breakfast for the night. Olivia wrote a literary novel, more than a few years ago now, that got some admiring reviews but didn’t sell. Ethan is the author of a popular, set-to-be-a-movie “Internet memoir based on the drunken reflections of a certifiable asshole”—a diary of a year of nightly assignations with willing, occasionally sober women that has given him a scuzzy halo of celebrity.
“How is that not porn?” asks Olivia.
“No pictures,” he says.
Even if Ethan wasn’t imbued with such incandescent charm by one Luigi Sottile, you could maybe see how a woman who lives almost entirely in her head—played by the irreplaceable Holly Twyford, who is better at letting us see her think onstage than anybody—might be reluctantly drawn to a guy so unburdened by hesitation, especially once it becomes apparent he’s actually read a book or 20. Here’s the thing, though: Ethan has read her work, and admires it. To an insecure writer (not always a redundancy, but usually) nothing is more seductive than that.
Once nature has taken its course, he asks to read her unpublished manuscript. That would be “too personal” she protests, clawing at his belt. And so the see between them saws: He yearns to be a real writer like her, insisting the frat-boy persona of his perfectly chosen pen name, Ethan Strange, is just a character he’s playing to get a foothold in the literary world. Critics and publishers don’t make careers anymore, he tells her, and books no longer have that smell Olivia loves so deeply. She, meanwhile, envies his confidence, his ease in the digital realm that’s replacing old publishing, his having enough money to just write, undistracted.
It might be a stretch that a book like the one Ethan has written would make Junot Díaz want to associate himself with the literary-recommendation app Ethan is developing, but it’s easy to believe Olivia would be tempted by the scheme he cooks up to relaunch her stalled career. (JD Madsen’s set, complete with flakes of video snow piling up outside the windows of the cozy B&B in Act 1, is buried in real books, with shapes that suggest the fossils of book-spines carved into the floors and walls, as though they’re at risk of extinction. Clever, that.)
The script for Sex With Strangers was the writing sample that landed Eason a job on the writing staff of the second and third seasons of House of Cards. The play had a David Schwimmer–directed production starring Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn only last summer, but the pairing of director Aaron Posner and Twyford, who together put a flawless production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia onstage at the Folger Theatre five years ago, wants for nothing. It’s the sexiest show of the year, but you’ll love it for its mind.
Both plays are onstage at 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Elmer Gantry tickets are $29-$70. Sex With Strangers tickets are $39-$70.
Due to a reporting error, an original version of this review misidentified Luigi Sottile as “Leo Sottile.”