Located twenty minutes east of the CBD, Q44 Theatre is known for bringing top – quality plays to Melbourne.

Since starting only two years ago, the company has already generated critical praise for their staging of works including ‘Dolores’ (by Edward Allen Baker), ‘Orphans’ (by Lyle Kessler), ‘Spike Heels’ (by Theresa Rebeck), ‘Kafka’s Monkey’ (by Franz Kafka and adapted by Colin Teevan), ‘Fool For Love’ (by Sam Shepard), ‘Savage In Love’ (by John Patrick Shanley), and ’Sister Cities’ (by Colette Freedman).

With their latest choice for 2016, written by Laura Eason, Q44 raises its own high bar with an intellectual yet accessible, entertaining and thought – provoking drama.

Eason is an Emmy award – winning, screenwriter, playwright of original stories and adaptations, as well as a book musical author. Her works include ‘Our Secret Life’, ‘In The Eye of the Beholder’, and ‘Days Like Today’. She is also a producer, story editor and staff writer on the popular Netflix series, ‘House Of Cards’, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.

In 2009 Eason’s play, ‘Sex with Strangers’, was the break – out hit at First Look Repertory (for the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago). With an approximate running time of two hours (including a twenty – minute interval), this compelling two – hander is also an electrifying character study in contrasts.

The creative process is often the crux of any writer’s journey.  Notable plays and films about this obsessive path and its many artistic pitfalls include ‘Adaptation’, ‘Art’, ‘Barton Fink’, ‘D.O.A.’, ‘Just Right’, ‘Midnight in Paris’, ‘Orange County’, ‘The Player’, ‘The Producers’, ‘Rich & Famous’, ‘Stranger Than Fiction’, ‘Wit’, ‘Wonder Boys’ and ‘Young Adult’.

Further to many of the above examples listed, ‘Sex with Strangers’ is a multi – layered powerhouse where X & Y, two generations with opposing moral codes, clash head on.

On the cusp of her fortieth birthday, Olivia Lago is a teacher and published author with mixed critical success.  Her first novel did not garner the response she had hoped for, and in the years since, she has shut herself off from the public eye. Nevertheless, Lago is on sabbatical from school putting the final touches on a second book.

Ethan Kane, a twenty – something shock blogger with his finger firmly planted on the social media pulse, tracks her down late one night at a snow – bound Michigan inn. Though quickly professing an admiration for her writing, the pair could not be more different.

Kane is from a world where celebrity and scandal are measured in internet hit rates and Facebook likes. This leads to his first book, which, kicked off by a buddy’s dare, is in fact a compendium of Kane’s personal sexual exploits. Kane justifies his stories to Lago, because, having written them under an avatar – driven alias, Ethan Strange, he thinks himself above and absolved from all judgment.

Soon, in spite of their vehemently contrasting views, secluded from the outside world, the two of them become lovers.

What got and kept this reviewer hooked, was how someone who treated young and available women with such aberrant abandon, could be so loving and supportive towards the older and more shy, Lago. Further, when Kane pushes the author to post the novel she was finishing on to the internet, as well as offering her access to his literary agent, there had to be a catch.

Where Act One was about Kane drawing Lago out of her shell and into the twenty – first century, Act Two turns the tables on him as his new protégé takes off. Eason’s cautionary tale felt very much like George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ meeting ‘The Graduate’ (by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham), re-imagined by the likes of Brett Easton Ellis.

Without giving any further plot points away, Q44’s masterful creative team have brought Eason’s double – edged sword to intoxicating life.

As Lago, Carissa McAllen gives her role equal doses of strength and vulnerability.  Her telling body language supports Eason’s considered dialogue, to the point where viewers will see how huge creative and monetary potential can both completely warp and lose someone.  Irrespective of the character’s conservative background, it seems even Lago has her price.

Will Atkinson’s Kane, provides McAllen’s Lago with the perfect emotional foil. He is at times, worldly and street smart, and at other moments, puppy – dog naïve. Through Atkinson, we believe how a character with dangerous disregard for social parameters, could cause so much damage in the pursuit for fame.  Charming and seductive to a fault, Atkinson truly makes his role a devil in disguise.

Director, Gabriella Rose – Carter (with assistance from Sebastian Gunner and vocal coaching by Suzanne Heywood), gives this story a specific sense of place, focus and substance. Watching both actors flesh out Eason’s words; one really feels for their situational choices, thus allowing the play’s climax even greater fire power.

Q44 also highlights the marked technological differences between the two characters and their respective worlds. According to the company’s production notes, “We were intrigued by the tangibility and nostalgic quality of the Polaroid photograph when laid against our cultural fascination with the mediated simulacra of Instagram.”

Set design by Casey – Scott Corless brings this statement neatly home.

Not only does his elegant vision encapsulate Olivia and Ethan’s universe, this three – dimensional snapshot into their lives is framed by a thick white outline looking very much like a Polaroid or Instagram photograph. (It should be noted that the smart set construction was by Jordan Fletcher).

John Collopy and Corless, often use colourful strobe lighting, combined with sound from Justin Gardam, to further reinforce this point. Short scene breaks felt very much like the characters were being studied under the microscope by increasingly hungry red carpet paparazzi.

Dressing is a language, and Corless uses costumes to mark this switch in power between the leads from Acts One to Two.  In the first half of the story, McAllen is outfitted in softer fabrics, making her corporate appearance in the second half transformative.  For here, she has found her voice and her strength.  Atkinson’s character is always on – trend yet casual, though once Lago is given the power, he is ironically dressed in playful, army camouflage.

Q44’s production notes also point out, “We were fascinated by revealing the private worlds of the characters in exposing the mechanics of the theatrical backstage.”

Hence, placing each character’s respective rack of costumes in full view by either side of the stage is another stroke of genius.  Much like Glenn Close and John Malkovich dressing up in the opening credits from Stephen Frears’ motion picture classic, ‘Dangerous Liaisons’, audience members are able to spy on Eason’s protagonists as they privately prepare for war.

Clever raked seating within the venue’s intimate space allows the audience to be both at one with and on top of the action, while Samantha Mesh keeps stage management fluid and seamless.

With no stone left unturned, Q44 ticks all of the boxes for a knock – out theatrical experience.  Running for a strictly limited season, ‘Sex with Strangers’ plays until September 3rd. Don’t miss out.