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Theatre in Review: Actually (Manhattan Theatre Club/City Center Stage II)

Joshua Boone, Alexandra Socha. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Some years ago, Manhattan Theatre Club gave us Doubt, in which John Patrick Shanley asked us to decide if the main character, a Catholic priest, was a child abuser, or if the nun who accused him of such was acting out of ulterior motives. He provided only so much information about both, leaving us in the uncomfortable position of making judgments without dispositive evidence. It was an approach that guaranteed many a lively post-performance discussion. (Cherry Jones, who played the nun, noted in an interview that liberals tended to favor the priest while "the people who think George Bush hung the moon" usually sided with the nun.) Thus, a play set in a Catholic parish, forty years in the past, cunningly became a mirror of these disunited states.

In Actually, Anna Ziegler takes the opposite approach to reveal another, and equally deep, fissure in contemporary culture. The play turns on a campus rape accusation, the sort of event that has been covered so much in recent years (including one, at the University of Virginia, that did significant damage to the reputation of Rolling Stone). The play has only two characters -- the accuser and the accused -- and Ziegler allows each of them to make his or her case at length. Virtually no detail is left unexamined; each of our narrators appears to be thoroughly candid and unsparing when it comes to self-examination. And here's the thing: When it is over, audiences are likely to be arguing as lustily as they did after seeing Doubt.

"I felt like a character in The Crucible," says Amber, the plaintiff, and she doesn't help her case by admitting that she was talked into filing a complaint by her friend, Heather, and the RA at her dorm. Nursing a hangover, she is confronted by Heather, who says she was seen running around topless in a bar the evening before. Amber says, "And I'm like 'That's the least of it. I mean, Thomas Anthony [her date for the evening] practically raped me.' And she looked at me with these wide eyes, like she was kind of seeing me for the first time, and I knew immediately that I'd said something I couldn't take back."

There are other, more muddying matters to take into consideration. We see Amber the night before the alleged rape, flirting with Tom, telling him he has to play a truth game with her if her expects her to sleep with him. Further confusing matters, the word Amber used when sex with Tom turned rough was "actually" -- hardly the strongest objection one could offer. And then there's the fact that, even now, Amber says that looking at Tom "makes me tingle." Adding a potentially explosive touch, Amber is white and Jewish and Tom is black.

Up to this point, Tom has been something of a success story. Growing up poor and fatherless, he landed a scholarship to a private high school where, he notes, "most of my friends were white. And no. I never told them that I felt at all, like, weird, going to their houses after school and playing Xbox while their black babysitters cooked and cleaned and made us dinner." He made it to Princeton and, a talented pianist, has realizable dreams of becoming a professional musician. He comes across as funny, charming, affable. But he undermines our confidence in him, just a little, when he tells the story of the teacher who, in high school, came on to him and, when they were caught in a clinch, tried to blame him. She was fired, but in the context of Amber's allegation, one has to wonder.

And the more we get to know Amber and Tom, the harder it is to judge exactly what happened between them; the more information they share, the more they muddy the waters. She is a nice girl -- bookish, shy, admittedly afraid of sex -- who is, nevertheless, desperate to remake herself as a more confident person. (In high school, she had a sexual experience that could be interpreted as borderline rape; no, she didn't report it.) At college, she falls under the influence of Heather, who likes to party all night, every night, instead of studying. (Heather also outfits Amber with a flask so she can take a nip anytime she wants.) Tom adopts a similar party-hearty approach. When his mother, on the phone, says he sounds tired, he tells us, "I thought it was just that I was so fatigued myself, because I wasn't sleeping, because, you know, every night it was one of these parties, or three of them. And every night I was having sex." That Tom and Amber are getting loaded regularly is a salient point, since neither of them can remember, after a certain point, what happened on the night in question. There are times when the real subject of Actually seems to be the dangers of blackout drinking in college.

Ziegler keeps turning the screw, adding details that constantly force us to revise our opinions of the characters. She rewinds the action back to that fateful night, showing Tom reacting to terrible news about his mother, then having a fraught encounter with his best friend, both of which leave him simmering with the kind of anger that, he feels sure, a black man can never show the world. (This latter scene involves an act that could have gotten Tom into serious trouble all by itself; the fact that Ziegler drops it is without comment is one of the play's weaknesses.) Then again, the tone-deaf Amber is often clueless about race ("But, like, I'm a big fan of black people"), and when Tom calls her "a privileged bitch," she replies unexpectedly revealing a talent for victimhood, "You get to be comfortable in your own body. And that's a privilege." That she believes this to be the truth may be one of the most horrifying things about Actually.

Under the sure directorial hand of Lileana Blain-Cruz, neither Joshua Boone, as Tom, nor Alexandra Socha, as Amber, tips the author's hand, presenting each character's argument without fear or favor and leaving us to puzzle out for ourselves the truth. The action proceeds as a pair of intertwined monologues punctuated occasionally by direct exchanges between the two. The staging is as lean and swift as the writing, proceeding from the date that went wrong to the hearing where at least one young life will, most likely, be shattered. The production design is equally uncluttered. Adam Rigg's set is an abstract rendering of a college multipurpose room, with other locations suggested by Yi Zhao's lighting. (There's an especially effective moment when, returning to the bar, a wash of purple light slowly creeps in along the upstage wall.) Jane Shaw's sound design effectively establishes the party atmosphere in the bar. Paloma Young's costumes are accurate to each character.

In the end, Actually leaves one with the feeling that the larger problem facing these kids is a college environment that encourages libertine behavior while taking a draconian approach when disputes arise. There is little question that rape is far, far too prevalent on campuses, yet there's also the likelihood that murky scenarios, such as this one, can result in all sorts of unintended consequences. By the time Actually is over, it has made a fairly good case that Tom, at the very least, has done some harm to Amber. But there's something equally chilling in Amber's comment to one of the faculty members charged with hearing the case that "Tom isn't gonna get a fair trial, like he's gonna be one of those black men just tossed recklessly into the tornado of a broken system, but then I realize that shouldn't really matter to me. I can't fix the system, can I?" It's a measure of this provocative play's power that this question lingers, uncomfortably, long after one has seen it. -- David Barbour

(5 December 2017)

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