“Um, actually.” These seemingly innocuous words are critical to the events of the aptly named Actually, a new play by Anna Ziegler currently playing at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in a co-world premiere with the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Actually is a smartly written—although sometimes unfocused—thought-provoking examination of the campus rape epidemic that emphasizes fleshing out the characters of both the accuser and the accused, proving just how complex these all-too-common situations can be.
Directed by Tyne Rafaeli, all of the action occurs in a strikingly minimalist set by Tim Mackabee, consisting only of what feels like a wooden box with two chairs inside. The two actors switch between interacting with each other and telling their stories directly to the audience. The main action occurs during the first couple months of Tom (Jerry MacKinnon) and Amber’s (Samantha Ressler) freshman year at Princeton University. Tom is black, a talented piano player, extremely close to his mother, and a bit of a womanizer, taking full advantage of the constant parties and constant stream of new girls of the early days of college. His outward confidence and swagger mask deep insecurities, and he secretly worries he will never amount to anything. Amber is mousy, neurotic, Jewish, and simultaneously amazed and terrified something as good as getting into Princeton happened to her because she is used to never being the best at anything. She is desperate to fit in in this new atmosphere, defaulting to over-partying and under-studying as she tries to get her bearings. She notices Tom in a psych lecture and he eventually asks her out for ice cream, which leads him to invite her to a party a week later.
At the beginning, their courtship is presented as fairly adorable. Even though Tom insists he’s not looking for anything serious, he admits to being surprisingly intrigued by Amber, who talks super fast and has a knack for blurting out surprising or inappropriate comments, such as asking Tom what it’s like being black. Amber, meanwhile, is giddy over Tom’s interest in her, so much so that when they meet up at the party and he is clearly out of sorts and in a terrible mood due to a couple events in his personal life that are slowly revealed, she persists with flirting anyway. They drink—a lot—and end up back in Tom’s room, where Amber at first seems to be enjoying herself, at least from Tom’s perspective. When they begin to have sex, she gets freaked out by his demeanor and aggressiveness and says “um, actually,” attempting to extricate herself from the situation, but Tom does not heed her protest. The next day, Amber likens her encounter with Tom to rape while talking to a friend, and at the urging of her friend and their RA she ends up reporting the assault to the school, resulting in a disciplinary hearing.
It is honestly a bit difficult to sort out exactly how I feel about this play. One thing that is not debatable is that both MacKinnon and Ressler are terrific, giving masterful, difficult, compelling performances. In addition to examining the events surrounding the rape and the hearing, they each delve into their childhoods, families, early sexual experiences, and other formative events, painting the picture of two very three-dimensional characters. Ultimately, I think the statement the playwright was trying to make is that situations where someone is accused of rape, especially in college, are often not clear cut, and these accusations are regularly mishandled by universities. A lot of detail goes into describing Princeton’s proceedings, including the likely biased panel of faculty members assembled to hear the evidence and the insulting, problematic questions they ask, such as interrogating Amber about what she wore to the party. Today it is estimated that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, and it is suspected that over 90% of assaults go unreported largely due to the tendency of educational institutions, society, and even law enforcement to not believe accusers and/or to not punish the accused. Actually was riveting throughout its 90 minutes, and its final tableau caught me off guard with just how powerful and poignant it was.
That being said, the play occasionally felt like it was trying to frantically check boxes to include every possible complication or hot-button issue. I really wish that an unfocused subplot that led nowhere meaningful about Tom’s gay best friend and an offhand mention by Amber of a time she was sexually assaulted as a pre-teen were not included, and I even question the relevance of making him specifically black and her specifically white and Jewish. While those identifying characteristics lend themselves to more specific backstories, as well as adding a layer to the way Tom is treated once accused, the crux of the story could easily apply to characters of any race or religion. There is also a part of me that cannot help but worry any narrative in which any degree of doubt is raised regarding the validity of a woman’s rape accusation could be damaging. That being said, the play does very well in addressing the often misunderstood issue of affirmative consent, and I appreciate the risky choice to characterize Amber as a bit abrasive and not super likable. It is also fine to let Tom firmly believe he did not rape her, because that is a sadly common belief amongst accused rapists that again speaks to the issue of affirmative consent and needing to better educate young men about what truly constitutes a consensual sexual encounter.
While exiting the theater after the play, I had a very strange experience. My friend and I were walking to the parking structure when we were approached by an older French lady who said she wanted to ask our opinion as young women. I was happy to engage, fully aware that as someone who attended college in the past decade, my perspective on the play was potentially a different one. It quickly became apparent, however, that this woman was deeply upset by what we had just watched, and she began emphatically asking me if I agreed that by getting drunk to the point of throwing up the next day, Amber brought the rape upon herself and was therefore awful for accusing Tom. “If you drink and drive and kill someone, that is the same,” she insisted. Flabbergasted by what I was hearing, I managed to say “I don’t think that is the same at all,” shocked that a fellow woman had really just compared driving drunk and killing someone to being raped while drunk. It was clear that she was not interested in listening to differing opinions despite my best efforts, but the conversation was both shocking and eye-opening. I doubt she was the only person in the audience who came away having drawn that conclusion, which is honestly frightening. Although it clearly did not have the desired effect on her, this woman is the reason we need plays like Actually. While it is not perfect and could benefit from clarifying its messaging, it is prompting a conversation that desperately needs to be had.
Actually runs at the Geffen Playhouse through June 11th. Tickets start at $60 ($25 for college students) and can be purchased at www.geffenplayhouse.com.