'Actually': Theater Review

Jerry MacKinnon and Samantha Ressler - Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Chris Whitaker
Skilled acting and smart writing in a play that nonetheless skirts the issue.

Jerry MacKinnon and Samantha Ressler star in Anna Ziegler's world-premiere two-hander at the Geffen Playhouse, which attempts to tackle the troubling issue of campus rape.

According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control, nearly one in five college freshmen women are victims of rape or attempted rape, with 90 percent of cases going unreported. In 2011, the Department of Education issued guidelines for dealing with sexual violence called the "Dear Colleague Letter," which details campus proceedings falling vaguely between an inquiry and an in-house trial convened by faculty and administrative personnel. One such hearing is the basis of playwright Anna Ziegler's compelling new two-hander, Actually, featuring strong performances and nuanced writing.

Occupying two chairs on a bare wood-paneled stage are a pair of flirtatious Princeton freshmen, Amber Cohen (Samantha Ressler) and Tom Anthony (Jerry MacKinnon). Lighting designer Lap Chi Chu sets the tone with blue light, with sound designer Vincent Olivier’s throbbing party beat behind them, while Amber chatters nervously before being silenced with a kiss from Tom. The music abruptly stops and lights change to white as the two turn and address the audience about what happened later that night.

Loquacious and quirky, Amber is from a middle-class home in New Jersey. Her psych class is among her favorites, and not just because it’s one she shares with Tom. Though she’s admired him from afar, she figured such a notorious lothario would never cast an eye her way until she reads in her psych book about the "pratfall effect," by which plain-looking people become more attractive through their flaws.

Tom aspires to be a piano soloist and forms a friendship with a gay violinist who is secretly in love with him. The first six weeks of college are fraught with the usual challenges, which he alleviates with partying and a string of willing coeds. On the night in question, both he and Amber are drunk at a party; she takes her shirt off and bribes him into playing a word game by offering sex. Drunkenly, they climb into bed together and from there the picture grows murky.

Even murkier is how to adjudicate rape allegations in cases of implicit consent. A panel of faculty and administrators is assembled to hear the case. Their qualifications are as limited as the standards by which behavior can be codified. And while no complaint should be ignored, false allegations could indelibly mark the accused even when exonerated.

Director Tyne Rafaeli elicits naturalistic performances, smoothly dovetailing with Ziegler’s distinctive characterizations. Detailed backstories and inner lives form the basis of multidimensional personas that might have walked in off the UCLA campus just outside the theater door. As one of a relatively small number of African-Americans on campus, Tom’s cockiness cloaks his loneliness and insecurities, stemming from the fact that he’s the first in his financially strapped family to attend college. That he adores classical music and is gay-tolerant seems designed to earn the audience’s sympathy, whereas Amber’s feelings of inadequacy are endearing though less winning.

Such strong portrayals and opposing viewpoints ought to comprise a captivating build to the final decision on what happened in Tom’s room that night, but unfortunately Actually avoids the issue's thornier aspects. While it's nominally a drama about the difficulties of untangling the he-said/she-said question, the play digs into character at the expense of thematic bite in terms of dealing with campus rape. The profoundly difficult problem of how to resolve such questions is overshadowed by character background and inner musings that needlessly lengthen to 90 minutes what might comfortably have been an hourlong drama.

In interviews, Ziegler (whose science play Photograph 51 was produced on London's West End in 2015 with Nicole Kidman) suggests that assigning blame is less enthralling than leaving the audience to come to its own conclusions. Wittingly or not though, by the end she more or less provides the answer, diminishing an otherwise relevant and thoughtful production.

Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles
Cast: Jerry MacKinnon, Samantha Ressler
Director: Tyne Rafaeli
Playwright: Anna Ziegler
Set designer: Tim Mackabee
Costume designer: Elizabeth Caitlin Ward
Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu
Sound designer: Vincent Olivieri
Presented by the Geffen Playhouse