Literate Lovers: All Those Books in Sex With Strangers
Bibliophiles whose homes are filled with reading matter are accustomed to visitors asking, "Have you read all these books?"-as opposed to lining the rooms with them as a cheap source of building insulation, presumably. But the question inevitably raised when a stage setting incorporates floor-to-ceiling shelves of weighty tomes is "Are those books all real?"
Sex With Strangers, currently playing at Steppenwolf Theatre, is a writers-in-love story-Olivia is a novelist and Ethan, a blogger-so it is almost inevitable that Todd Rosenthal's scenic design would include an abundance of literature. The first act takes place at a Writers' Retreat, where the rooms are considerately furnished with dictionaries, a thesaurus or two, and other tools of the trade. The locale then moves in the second act to Olivia's apartment, a cozy refuge with walls, literally, covered with books.
So are they real?
"All the books in Olivia's apartment are real and functional," stage manager Chris Freeburg assures me, "so real, in fact, that the cast and crew often 'borrow' them to read during the show's run. But some of the hardcover volumes have holes in the middle from being threaded onto steel rods when we did The Tempest."
All books are not created equal, however-a regency heroine's boudoir self wouldn't sport a Robert Ludlam, nor a science geek's dorm room, a Danielle Steele. And doctors' or lawyers' offices typically display reference compendiums with bindings recognizable even to ordinary citizens. What efforts are made to match the onstage library to its alleged reader?
"When the books need to be certain types of books, and the shelf contents are readable from the house, the prop department usually creates their own jackets. The pre-fab panels you buy at the Homeware stores always look fake, but our prop department prides itself on its quality and attention to detail."
After the show is up and running, however, it doesn't mean the work is finished. "Key volumes-the ones that figure in the play's physical action-are set in specific places that are checked before every performance," Freeburg tells me, "There haven't been any problems with wear and tear yet, but we keep pretty alert to things like that, and have a spare stack of books that can be swapped in as needed."
And what is Olivia reading these days to put her in the mood for a fling with an audacious bad-boy? Freeburg thinks a moment, "There are many, of course, but the short list includes John Irving's Piggy Sneed, Kazou Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and Sara Green's Water For Elephants. Also Ian McEwan's Atonement, Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs, and an etiquette guide by Emily Post. One Hundred Years of Solitude, several copies of Proust's Swann-oh, and lots of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky."
Sex With Strangers plays through May 15 at Steppenwolf Theatre. For information, phone 312-335-1650 or visit
Mary Shen Barnidge
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