By Stanford Friedman
Playwright Anna Ziegler is having something of an off-Broadway moment. The Roundabout is currently staging her life-as-a-tennis-game drama, The Last Match. And now the Manhattan Theatre Club offers up her two-hander, Actually. It is an engaging think piece that wonders if opposites attract or if opposites attack. Some play titles operate on two levels; this one operates on so many levels it is hard to keep count. The word itself pops up in the script some 26 times and the work, ultimately, is a study of actuality, how internal and external forces can alter the memory of an experience.
Tom (Joshua Boone) is tall, African American and a gifted musician. Amber (Alexandra Socha) is short, Jewish and a mediocre squash player. She can be overly analytical and endlessly talkative. He can be laid back and straight to the point. They are Princeton students who, after a short flirtation and a night of drinking, end up in bed together. Come daylight, Tom thinks it might be romance. Amber thinks it might be rape.
As she did in The Last Match, Ziegler has her characters presenting their cases directly to the audience, keeping interaction between the two at a minimum. And the passage of time is fluid. We swoop around in flashbacks, from their hooking up at a party, to the campus hearing that will determine Tom’s guilt. Their first kiss is enacted twice, with subtle differences changing the equation between them. But what makes the play tick is that we are never given any conclusive answers. And because of that, Actually is a story about overt sexual assault only on the surface. It is more concerned with what shaped Tom and Amber’s perceptions. Do the sexual intrusions they experienced separately in the past inform how they see themselves together? How does verbal communication affect their physical intimacy? Where is the line between consent and tacit consent? Where does race enter in? As Ms. Ziegler drives home with a visual stunner of an ending, the difference between truth and falseness, innocence and guilt, can lie in the smallest, most random, shifting of the wind.
Tolerance for Ms. Socha’s performance will vary depending on how much of Amber’s neurotic chattering one can withstand. For me, she was able to find enough moments of insecurity and self-realization to make her character sympathetic. Mr. Boone, meanwhile, expertly walks the line between cocky and sensitive. The production is perfectly paced, thus director Lileana Blain-Cruz, having dealt with high school students in the recent Pipeline, graduates to the college level with honors. (In an interesting coincidence, both Tom and Pipeline’s central character, Omari, reflect on how discussing Richard Wright’s work, in a high school classroom of privileged white students, took a toll on their self-esteem.) Adam Rigg’s set design is minimalist, just a couple of chairs and a grassy rug, so Yi Zhao’s lighting design and Jane Shaw’s sound are critical in establishing transitions. If the cues are not exactly subtle, it is the rare instance of light being the most defined element on stage.
Actually – By Anna Ziegler; directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz.
WITH: Joshua Boone (Tim) and Alexandra Socha (Amber).
Adam Rigg (scenic design), Paloma Young (costume design), Yi Zhao (lighting design), and Jane Shaw (sound design), Lauren Pennington (stage manager). Manhattan Theatre Club, presented in Association with Williamstown Theatre Festival. The Studio at Stage II – Harold and Mimi Steinberg New Play Series at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, www.nycitycenter.org, 212-581-1212. Through December 3. Running time: 90 minutes.