Many situations involving sexual misconduct ultimately result in “he said/she said” scenarios. Such is the case with the incident at the center of this two-hander drama by Anna Ziegler (Photograph 51, The Last Match). Currently receiving its off-Broadway premiere after previous productions at the Geffen Playhouse and The Williamstown Theatre Festival, Actually essentially consists entirely of “he said/she said.”
The story revolves around freshmen Princeton University students Tom (Joshua Boone) and Amber (Alexandra Socha). The African-American Tom, an aspiring pianist, is smooth and confident, cutting a wide swath through the school’s female students. Amber — Jewish, slight of build and considered cute if not classically beautiful — is insecure and self-effacing. She finds herself immediately attracted to Tom at a school function and, although she’s not really his type, he’s intrigued by her as well.
The play begins with their initial encounter, in which Amber, in a foreshadowing of what’s to come, coaxes a reluctant Tom into playing the game “Two truths and a lie.” It’s not long afterward, we learn, that the couple, both highly inebriated, tumbled into bed together. Looking back on the sexual encounter, Tom considers it to have been consensual, while Amber says she was raped. They both wind up testifying before a university panel composed of “three neutral appointees,” looking to see if the school’s “sexual misconduct policy” has been violated. When she appears, Amber is asked, “Are you sure you clearly expressed your ‘lack of affirmative consent’?”
The hot-button topic of campus rape has been in the news lately, thanks to a Secretary of Education who thinks that accused male students have been treated unfairly. It’s a compelling and provocative subject whose dramatic potential is only fitfully realized in this talky effort, consisting largely of monologues in which the two characters discuss themselves and their perceptions of what happened.
It’s a technique often used by the playwright — also on display in the concurrent off-Broadway production of The Last Match. But here it feels lazy, as if it was too much trouble to dramatize the situations. Such plot elements as Tom’s shocked reaction to being sexually propositioned by his male best friend or getting the news that his beloved mother is suffering from cancer don’t achieve the necessary dramatic force because they’re being related rather than depicted. It’s in the infrequent instances when the characters do interact that Actually actually clicks.
Despite its stylistic drawbacks, however, the play feels incisive and smartly observed. As superbly played by Boone and Socha, the characters register as sympathetic figures whose viewpoints happen to be opposing. Although Amber proves the more engaging figure with her frequently amusing chatter, the alternately cocky and vulnerable Tom displays an intriguing complexity. Ziegler infuses the proceedings with a deliberate ambiguity that feels appropriate to the subject matter — even it’s not as immediately satisfying as a clearer resolution would have been.
Lileana Blain-Cruz’s unobtrusive, smooth staging enhances the play’s effectiveness, as does the simple set featuring two chairs and a wood panel backdrop, and the ambient sound design providing the auditory atmosphere of a campus party.
Venue: City Center Stage II, New York
Cast: Joshua Boone, Alexandra Socha
Playwright: Anna Ziegler
Director: Lileana Blain-Cruz
Set designer: Adam Rigg
Costume designer: Paloma Young
Lighting designer: Yi Zhao
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, in association with Williamstown Theatre Festival