By Anna Ziegler; Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club in association with Williamstown Theatre Festival
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 12.3.17
New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street
by Charlotte Arnoux on 11.14.17
Alexandra Socha and Joshua Boone in Actually. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
BOTTOM LINE: Actually unpacks the blurred lines of a drunken night between two college freshmen.
Actually, Anna Ziegler’s play now running at Manhattan Theatre Club’s smaller venue, could not come at a more clutch time. With quotidian rape, assault, and harassment charges being brought forth, a play like Ziegler’s forces us to slowly witness the unpacking of a single night between Princeton freshmen Tom Anthony and Amber Cohen.
Amber (Alexandra Socha) and Tom (Joshua Boone) are going full speed ahead into their freshman year: binge-drinking, having sex, making lifelong friends, and doing just enough homework to get by. Early in the play, we are presented with the privilege and oppression they each carry, traits that will be used both in defense of, and against, them throughout the play. Tom, a black man with a love for classical music, is tall and charming, the first in his family to go to college. Amber, a petite Jewish woman with a big mouth, has an historically uncomfortable relationship with sex and her own body. Beyond the classic and ugly butting of narratives any rape case is bound to unveil, Ziegler’s play lets us bask in the uncomfortable tale of how these two characters have been set up for this disastrous night.
For Tom, it starts with the flurry of sexual encounters: he’s having sex every night! He knows this is a fluke of first-semester freshman frenzy and isn't going to pass up on this glorious period of freedom. He’s not a jerk about it, but it’s certainly endowed him with a sense of entitlement; how could it not? The night of the alleged rape, both his heart and his fragile masculinity have been deeply bruised.
A clear path to this fateful night can also be drawn from Amber’s perspective. Though Ziegler does not blame the victim, she still takes care to paint a picture of a neurotic, mousey young woman with deep insecurities about her body and her sexuality. Amber has something to prove, and her self-doubt is made worse when her best friend Heather ("the hot one") off-handedly says that “nothing’s gonna happen tonight anyway” as she leaves Amber alone for her date with Tom. Challenge accepted? Amber will over-compensate all night, performing her sexuality more than she ever has before.
In a fascinating and intrepid monologue, Amber reveals that she’s never been able to tell people to stop doing things to her. Whether it’s assault or bullying or imposing themselves into her life, Amber just takes it, and she’s not sure of what she wants—"It’s my default state. This zone of wanting something and not wanting it at the same time.” So where does that leave Tom and the night in question?
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz keeps her staging as minimalist as it gets. With the help of three different lighting designs by Yi Zhao, Blain-Cruz transports us from the night of the alleged rape to the Title IX deposition to a direct address to us, the audience. The burden of keeping us alert and engaged falls mostly on the actors and the text, which pushes the actors to sometimes overcompensate with a delivery that seems pushed. Socha creates a sometimes enchanting, sometimes irksome Amber, and Boone’s charisma serves the character’s journey very well. Both actors excel in moments that allow them to relax and live on stage, instead of the long monologues that force them to constantly re-spark our interest lest we lose track of the story. In the rare and refreshing moments of dialogue between Amber and Tom, the duo shines.
Ziegler’s nuanced depiction of a potential rapist we hate to hate and an imperfect victim (she was clearly into it, right?) is a brave effort. The play does what it sets out to do: show us that oftentimes alleged rapists are “good guys,” and that survivors can love their assailants. And it’s messy. No means no, but yes doesn’t necessarily mean yes, and what does “actually, um” mean?
(Actually plays at New York City Center's Stage II, 131 West 55th Street, through December 3, 2017. The running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30, Wednesdays at 2:30 and 7:30, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at 2:30 and 7:30, and Sundays at 2:30. There are additional 7:30 performances Sun 11/19 and Mon 11/20, and no evening performances Wed 11/22 and Thu 11/23; the matinee Wed 11/22 is at 1. Tickets are $30 and are available at nycitycenter.org or by calling CityTix at 212-581-1212. For more information visit manhattantheatreclub.com.)
Actually is by Anna Ziegler. Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. Presented in association with Williamstown Theatre Festival and Artistic Director Mandy Greenfield. Scenic Design by Adam Rigg. Costume Design by Paloma Young. Lighting Design by Yi Zhao. Sound Design by Jane Shaw. Production Stage Manager is Dane Urban.
The cast is Alexandra Socha and Joshua Boone.