Setting: Mostly Princeton University. Time: The present and recent past. Situation: a college student is being interviewed by an unseen and unheard interlocutor about a sexual experience she had on campus with another student. At the same time the boy is being interviewed about the same incident. For the most part we hear testimony. On occasion we witness the replay of a scene between the boy and the girl.
She is Amber Cohen. She is very bright. She reads. She makes notes. She is a bit shy and insecure about her own attractiveness. She is open to new adventures and eager to try new things. Including sex.
He is Tom. He is very attractive and he knows it. He is cocky but underneath that street confidence he is wary of people. He is the child of a single parent whose father took off a long while back. He adores his mother who has just told him that she has cancer. His best friend is gay and in love with him and he hopes Tom loves him back.
These two have been aware of one another for a long time. They are attracted to each other. They meet, begin a friendship that quickly turns to physical closeness. What happens between them leads to these "hearings," not a trial but interviews by an authority figure.
The question that arises is a simple one: Is consensual sex actually date-rape if one party feels regret afterward? If both parties feel regret? If neither party feels regret but wishes that "no" had been said?
This highly complex issue is played quite brilliantly by two actors in two orange chairs in a wood paneled official appearing chamber (designed by Adam Rigg) at Princeton. In one hour and twenty-four minutes their story is told and retold and debated in mini-monologues and occasional dialogues in an oddly compelling manner. It is a tribute to both the writer and the two actors under the careful and specific direction by Liliana Blain-Cruz that this format is never dull and always fascinating.
At an early point in the play the first kiss is shown with Amber, the receiver of the kiss, acting shyly and indecisively. At the end of the play the scene is replayed but her reaction is much different, more responsive and contributory. We are left with questions about how things progressed between the two, who was responsible for what in their short time together. This makes for fascinating theater, that room for long talks on the way home and afterward.
Alexandra Socha is terrific as Amber. She makes emotional transitions without even the blink of her eye. She is here one moment and there the next. She gives us her character's history as though she was simply responding to a school newspaper reporter. Then, without much difference in her tone, she is giving us her weaknesses, her jealousies, her bitterness. She is stunning us with this technique, filling us with information we'd never glean from a simple chat. And yet she makes this into just that, a simple informal chat. Her Amber is rife with contradictions. It's terrific, as I said.
Joshua Boone plays Tom in an over-achiever style that is initially off-putting and then endearing as we learn about who this boy is and why he is the young man he has become. Tom is torn between his background and his potential and though open to all new things, he is guarded and self-protective. Amber is a slip for him, a wrong move that he wants to make very much. Boone gives him both the emotional and motivational set-ups and his mini-monologue about Amber's hair is very real and very moving. This is a first-class performance.
"Actually" is a word with hints of reality sticking out of it. An excuse-starter, an explanation instigator, it is a word without permanent thrust. It is often used to change one expressed reality for another one. It is the perfect title for this very interesting play, one that I am certain we will hear about again by an author who uses her words very carefully. The issues of education in human relations at our schools is not a new one and rarely highly effective and Ziegler uses this idea to create a non-dramatic, quasi-romantic tragicomedy. Actually, let me rethink that last statement.
Actually plays in the Williamstown Theatre Festival's Nikos Stage at Williams College, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA through August 20. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-458-3253 or go on line at wtfestival.org.