Anna Ziegler’s (Photograph 51) new two-person play Actually sets out as an intimate exploration of one of our society’s most taboo, yet timely, topics—sexual consent among two young people in an age where dating has become synonymous with sex.
Amber (Sylvia Kates) and Thomas Anthony (Jaysen Wright) are both freshman at Princeton University—but that’s about where their similarities end. Tom is a tall and muscular, cunningly-handsome, young black man “rescued” from a childhood of poverty by his talent for classical piano. A self-proclaimed ladies’ man, he playfully boasts of his nightly conquests with young women and his talent for artfully dodging follow-up texts that might lead to commitment.
Amber is a slight, bird-like, Jewish girl from a well-to-do family (signaled by her squash team membership) whose naivety knows no bounds (within minutes she has made several uncomfortably tone-deaf comments on Tom’s race). Girlishly dressed in a flowered dress over bright tights (Sarah Cubbage’s costume design), Amber is a stream of brightly nervous, often self-deprecating, chatter. All the while she attempts to hide herself in plain sight—first behind her cascade of long hair (before putting it in a childlike braid off to one side), then by folding herself up in an oversized cardigan, hands stuffed deep in the pockets.
Near-strangers after one chaste ice-cream date, Tom and Amber meet up at a campus party and engage in a complicated game of conversational cat-and-mouse in which the assumed roles of “aggressor” and “victim” are immediately put on end. Amber coyly insists that Tom play a truth-telling game “if he expects to sleep with her” that evening and later admits she “tried to keep him drinking so he wouldn’t leave.” As he plays Amber’s game, Tom’s “truths” begin to reveal his own vulnerabilities and self-doubts. Fueled by tequila and plenty of keg beer, it seems clear where the evening is headed.
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Abruptly, this romantic interlude flashes forward to a Title IX hearing in front of a panel of Princeton professors in which Amber has accused Tom of rape.
Ultimately, Actually is less of a 90-minute “hearing” than a psychological experiment. Under the skillful direction of Johanna Gruenhut, the audience is mercilessly tugged back and forth between Tom and Amber’s accounts of not only the events of the night in question, but the events in each of their lives that colored their own perceptions of the “truth.” True to the “pratfall effect,” (a concept introduced to Tom and Amber in their shared psychology class), each mistake or character flaw revealed by Tom and Amber only seems to make them more attractive to the audience—more believable.
Wright’s Tom is devilishly cocky, yet never crude, nor cruel. He admirably captures the internal contradictions of Tom’s swaggering confidence, kept in constant check by his nagging fears that he doesn’t belong among the “privileged,” and that his talents will always be outweighed by the color of his skin. “In some ways I’ve been on trial my entire life,” he notes at the play’s outset, and thus behaves as if the world is always watching. The few times Wright allows flashes of anger to rise to the surface, they are less menacing, more cries of frustration and despair.
closes November 18, 2018
at Arena Stage
Details and tickets
At the same time, Tom’s “backstory,” as written by Ziegler, felt altogether too freighted. In particular, the central moment of the play—the sexual encounter between Tom and Amber—is muddied by a sudden incongruous event that felt forced and unnecessary, as if Ziegler felt Tom needed to be emotionally hobbled to make his later actions palatable.
Kates, as Amber, is endearingly innocent and thoroughly charming, but this “school girl” act begins to grate as the play progresses. Unable to say “no” to her parents and friends, Amber’s character molds to the wills of those around her. Her greatest desire is to be “seen.” While Tom’s frailty comes from fear grounded in the parts of him he cannot change, Amber’s seems to stem from indecision and her own perceived powerlessness. I was left wishing Ziegler had created a more complex—perhaps more ‘modern’—female lead.
Kates’ best work comes as Amber begins to show glimpses of a calculating—even callous—young woman below the shiny surface. As Amber readily admits, “not 100 percent of what I say is wholly and completely true.” Yet, when Amber finally does reveal her own “demons,” it comes a little too late to garner sympathy from the audience.
Sometimes it feels that Ziegler is throwing too many issues against the wall. Is the central conflict between the characters one of race? Gender? Privilege? Or are all of these issues so interwoven that they can never be separated? In this #metoo era where we always want to believe the victim, is there nonetheless room to believe the accused as well?
Actually is a stunningly-acted, thought-provoking piece that balances uncomfortable truths with sincere comedy. More importantly, it provides a provocative counterpoint to our oftentimes black-and-white discussion of sexual consent.
Actually by Anna Ziegler. Directed by Johanna Gruenhut. Scenic and Lighting design by Jesse Belsky. Costume Design by Sarah Cubbage. Sound Design by Evan Cook. Production Stage Manager Anthony O. Bullock. Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Meaghan Hannan Davant.
Note: Theater J is out of house this season while its space is being renovated. This play can be seen in the Kogod Cradle space at Arena Stage.