By Brian Scott Lipton
Barring a quickly written biodrama about Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey, there will be no more topical play on stage this month than Actually, Anna Ziegler’s bracing two-hander about date rape on a college campus. Or make that possible date rape. It’s not so much the classic he-said, she-said situation that Ziegler presents, as a question of interpretation: Did Amber non-verbally “ask” Tom to stop while they were in the middle of intercourse after a heavy night of drinking?
In fact, for the for most part, Tom (a superb Joshua Boone), a handsome African-American freshman exuding an outer swagger that effectively hides his inner insecurities, and Amber (an equally excellent Alexandra Socha), a shy white Jewish girl who lets loose on the night in question, essentially agree on what transpired –with that one major exception. And while it seems entirely possible neither party can clearly remember what happened (thanks to the copious amount of alcohol that was imbibed), each eventually states their case as pure, unquestionable fact.
Yet, as she does in her other current Off-Broadway play, “The Last Match,” Ziegler proves to be much more interested in what is in the minds of her characters, rather than the outcome of the “competition.” (Just as we never learn who won the fateful tennis match in the former play, Ziegler never tells us which way the three-person panel of faculty at Princeton decides Amber’s claim.
Moreover, Tom and Amber interact with the audience, sharing their thoughts and back stories, more often than they do with each other. Unsurprisingly, they both prove to be extremely complex human beings, each overly concerned with the image they project to others – which in turn leads them to act in ways they might not do otherwise. Tom pursues Amber, in part, at the urging of a friend who turns out to have a point to prove; Amber’s accusation of rape stems, in part, from how she relates the story of that fateful evening to her (unseen) best friend Heather.
As for their back stories, Ziegler might have learned some valuable knowledge from the great fashion designer Coco Chanel, and removed at least one from each of her characters. For example, on the night of the date, Tom must fend off yet another sexual advance from his (unseen) best friend, Sunil (amusingly described as an Indian Channing Tatum) and also learns that his mother has cancer. Meanwhile, the bookish Amber seems to be trying to compensate for an almost-virginal past and is still clearly reeling from the loss of her father some years back, among other personal dramas.
The play’s dramatic flaws are almost obscured by the deeply felt and thoroughly lived-in performances of Boone and Socha (who appeared in the show together earlier this year at the Williamstown Theatre Festival) and the smooth direction of Lileana Blain-Cruz, which makes the show’s 90 minutes fly by quickly.
More importantly, while “Actually” raises some very important questions about how men and women should interact – especially as we read the headlines — it’s a testament to everyone involved that it provides no easy answers or snap judgments. Indeed, I suspect you will actually feel that both characters have lost (and not just their innocence), no matter what the unknown outcome was.
Photos: Matthew Murphy
Actually extended through December 10 at Manhattan Theatre Club’s New York City Center-Stage II. Tickets can be purchased online at www.nycitycenter.org, by calling CityTix at 212-581-1212.