2022 Capital Fringe Review: ‘SWB – Strangers With Benefits’ by Shadia A. Hafiz

A riveting relationship drama, a remarkably moving parable about the components of human connection.

Editor’s note: This review replaces another review posted on July 17, 2022 — to which comments below refer — that has since been taken down. 

I was not aware of the triangular theory of love before, but I got a crash course in it as I watched Shadia A. Hafiz’s arresting and accomplished debut play, SWB – Strangers With Benefits, which just closed at Capital Fringe. According to the theory — as the unnamed character SHE carefully explains to the unnamed character HE during one of their anonymous hookups — there are three components to love: intimacy, commitment, and passion. Sitting beside him on a bed, SHE illustrates, spreading her legs at an angle and pointing to each foot for intimacy and commitment and then to her crotch for passion. In this triangle, SHE insists that they do only passion, not intimacy or commitment. And passion, lots of it, is where this play begins.

SHE and HE found each other through an online ad that HE placed ISO a consensual BDSM play partner. They meet up in a hotel room (the set is basically a kingsize bed) and negotiate terms — no names exchanged, no marks left, no safe word other than “safe.” And what follows is a series of graphic sexcapades that had to have been a full plate for the talented director (Christina A. Coakley) and cast (Shadia A. Hafiz as SHE, Harrison Smith as HE), who presumably preset it all.

Interspersed with the multiple sex scenes are text scenes: HE and SHE standing stage left and right with their phones in hand, speaking aloud what they are thumb-typing, typically sex talk and next-hookup planning. At some point you realize that these two intentional strangers are getting to know each other, notwithstanding their vows of anonymity, and that Hafiz’s savvy script — which is loaded with laughs — has swept us into a riveting relationship drama that will eventually reveal her characters to us and to each other and become a remarkably moving parable about the components of human connection.

In their sexing, texting, and cathecting, they do do intimacy, and it’s quite touching. I won’t disclose how they dance around doing commitment except to say that it involves some flabbergasting plotting.

Both Hafiz as SHE and Smith as HE create credible characters and stage passion and, together with Coakley’s smart direction, serve the script’s impressive storytelling well. Some of it is hard to watch. The sex gets briefly brutal. But the fact that the playwright is playing SHE obviates questions that might otherwise come to mind: “Is this actor comfortable doing what the script has her doing? Is she okay?” Knowing that Hafiz wrote what she’s doing becomes its own provocation to ponder.

 

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.

SWB – Strangers With Benefits played July 16, 17, and 23, 2022, at RepresentationFormerly Washington Sports Club, 3270 M St. NW, Washington, DC. To see the remaining Capital Fringe performance schedule and purchase tickets ($15), go online.

COVID Safety: The audience is to remain masked for the show. The mask needs to cover your mouth and nose the whole time. Proof of vaccination and ID are checked before entry.

Genre: Drama
Age appropriateness: Appropriate for Adults Only

Cast & Crew
Christina A. Coakley – Director
Michael Innocenti – Production Manager / Lights
Shadia A. Hafiz – SHE / Playwright
Harrison Smith – HE
Mary Doebel – Stage Manager

Previous article2022 Capital Fringe Review: ‘Interrupted’ by Hyla Matthews
Next article2022 Capital Fringe Review: ‘Green Machine’ by Jim McNeill
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

14 COMMENTS

  1. … This was a full production cut down to meet the fringe requirements to my knowledge. Understandably there would be holes but anyone who understands these types of things would be able to know why and not penalize the production for it. I for one am incredibly grateful we got this cut down version or any version, as this is the most moving raw piece seen in years on stage for myself. … I have no ties to this play or anyone attached to it by the way, but I love art and hate to see it wrongly represented in a review. I hope anyone reading this goes and judges it for themselves and is moved and I was. …

  2. I saw this show on Saturday and am a little perplexed by the reviewers confusion about their shock of the adult content of this play.
    1. It’s a Capital Fringe play
    2. The title of the play is ‘Strangers With Benefits’
    It was clear to me, there would be adult content. I thought the direction, use of lighting, transitions and actors did a lovely job with the material. I felt uncomfortable when I was to be uncomfortable. I was moved when I was to be moved. I laughed when it was funny. This is a well produced and written play about the kind of intimacy that is not ‘traditional’. It was insight into a story we never get to see, but should be explored. I definitely recommend seeing this Play.

  3. In our puritanical society I found this piece to be refreshing and not cliche at all! Exploring real human issues and intimacy without shying away from sex intensified the story of this unconventional relationship. A reviewer who thinks discussion of sexual topics is “depraved” is likely not a good fit for this production. I really loved the show!

  4. SWB was exactly what the author claimed it would be numerous times through out the promo – it is for adults only. It covered adult emotions and needs on every level possible. It was riveting, comical, depressing,enlightening. It covered many emotions of real life; of what many adults may have to deal with over many years of living together. I hope that someday I will get to see the full play and not just the scaled down one. Yes, there were some unanswered questions in this version. There wasn’t time to answer them all. I have personally faced several of the events portrayed. Yes they might be cliches to those who have not faced them. Life is often one big cliche. The older you get the more you realize that. I was surprised to find myself tearing up or smiling that ” I get you girl” smile when certain events just smacked me in the face. All plays are a work in progress until the become old and stale. SWB is one that I would love to follow until then. Somehow, I think it will take a long, long time to reach that point.

  5. Wow, I couldn’t disagree more with this reviewer’s conclusions. Saw the show on Saturday. Yes, the content of the play was overtly sexual. The BDSM sex, however, had a point. The relationship between the two main characters was predicated on nameless, kinky sex — and, despite their best efforts, their bond evolved into a deeply emotional one over time. And each of the characters used BDSM as a way to heal from their own personal traumas. And quite frankly, anyone that’s experienced the loss of a pregnancy, the emotional burdens of parenthood, or flocked to BDSM as part of their healing process — as my wife and I have in all three instances — will find it easy to relate in some way to these characters. The actors’ performances were dynamic, emotive, and genuine. I found the production amazing and cathartic, and I wish more plays were written and performed like this.

  6. I thought the show was terrific. The actors and production team did a great job. The writing was honest, raw, informative, authentic and a story told with courage. I could relate to the story as would many theatergoers. In my opinion, a reviewer using terms like “R-rated” and ‘depraved” is unprofessional. A more seasoned critic such as John Stoltenberg, or others on the DCTA staff, would appreciate this production and at least given it a fair review.

  7. I thought this play was good and I don’t understand how this critic got so little out of it? I noticed she rated SWB 3.5 stars, so i would expect a bigger chunk of the article to go over things that she liked. On that note, i really liked how the strangers played marry/f*ck/kill several times, and how some things that happened in their lives, were brought up several times later in the show. I thought the acting was great and couldn’t look away. I also liked how they staged it whenever they were texting each other, it didn’t feel fake or forced. Its definitely fair to (unbiasedly) point out areas of growth, but overall Strangers With Benefits itself is a good, engaging play. If you can see it this weekend you should definitely go.

  8. I guess the show isn’t for everyone. I enjoyed it. I didn’t notice any plot holes but it should be considered (and it’s noted in the program) that a substantial portion of this production had to be cut to fit within the time limits of the Capital Fringe Festival. So I guess any plot holes could be due to that?

    So much of this show takes place inside the minds of the characters. Their words are important but so is what they don’t say — especially in the scenes where they’re texting each other. I don’t want to give examples because it would spoil the show for those who haven’t seen it. But this is a very character centered piece. It’s about how the affair changes them both, for better or for worse. Do they learn? Are they growing or spiraling?

    The characters are laid bare. Both their virtues and their faults are made evident. You’re not going to find a perfectly virtuous hero to root for in this show because it’s really not about the storyline. That’s kind of the point. The characters are raw, emotional and vulnerable. We need that honesty to connect with them and to chart their change as humans. Removing the “depravity” would deprive the characters of their humanity, which makes this show what it is. Certainly, it would come across as inauthentic if the characters behaved with unnatural virtue.

    I’m getting a bit long-winded here but, in summary, I think the show is an invitation for us to connect to the characters on a human level regardless of how we may or may not judge them, morally. That’s not an experience that’s for everyone and that’s ok. Some people like musicals. Some people like comedies. Some people like character-based plays. This play wasn’t quite right for the author of this article but I would encourage people to give it a shot and go in with an open mind. Try to let your guard down and connect to the characters on stage even if you don’t love everything about them.

  9. I found this play to be the furthest thing from cliche. It’s a take on the hook up leads to a deeper relationship trope.

    The amazing thing that Hafiz pulls off is she completely reimagines what that relationship is. The characters become someone important to each other. But not in the clichéd way that we usually see. Intimacy can take many forms. This form of intimacy is one you rarely see represented in the arts.

    This show was incredibly moving, bringing me to tears and laughter many times. In the program it is noted that the play had to be shortened for the Fringe Festival. I would love to see the full length show at some point, I’m positive that and “plot holes” the reviewer noticed are addressed in the cut parts of the show.

    Additionally, I would like to commend both actors on their performances. I felt the connection, the passion, the anger and the need from both of them.

  10. The fact that “This review has been edited to remove the writer’s opinions on the morality of the play” discredits this entire review and a new one should be issued. I saw this show Saturday and found it to be incredibly powerful. The complexities of these characters made them so human, and the topics discussed are far from cliché. As someone who has suffered a miscarriage, I found that whole particular scene to be so honest to the experience that is losing a pregnancy. To lump that into a “cliché” category speaks volumes to the complete lack of awareness or life experience that this author possesses. I’m also surprised that the author was taken aback by the sexual content of a show that is literally called, Strangers with Benefits. Perhaps an adult should have reviewed an adult show. I highly recommend giving this show a chance, it’s worth it.

    • We will be sending another writer (John Stoltenberg) to see and review the next performance of this show in light of the strong opinions that run contrary to the review.

      That said, we stand by this writer’s review. No two writers will see a show in the same way, and her experience is valid. I removed the paragraph that spoke about the morality of the show because you are correct, we are not here to judge art based on its morals. I spoke to the author and she stands by her experience and her critiques of the execution of the show.

  11. It’s really unclear to me that this critic was so perplexed by the sexuality covered in this show, the title itself provides insight into what is to be expected. And sexuality, loss, and love are all topics that intertwine and it’s really only art that makes it less taboo. Hopefully next time they can send a critic with the stomach for raw content.

  12. Thank you for taking down the originally posted review of Strangers with Benefits and publishing a new one.
    I was deeply moved by the show and the performances – it deserves a new review.

  13. Should have stood by your reviewer and left both reviews up. Art is subjective, opinions differ. It’s possible to be moved by a show that still has room to grow. It’s possible for a show to have found it’s niche that could still be helped from criticism.

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