“Actually,” it’s a Case of He Said, She Said…and They Said.
SANTA ANA — NOV 17, 2022
...Or at least that’s what college life becomes for Amber Cohen and Tom Anthony, the play’s sole characters. Before their first campus autumn has turned to winter, they’ve completed what seems to be a new freshman trifecta: flirting after psych class, hooking up drunk and then appearing as adversaries at a hearing to adjudicate an accusation of rape.
“Actually,” written by Anna Ziegler (“Photograph 51,” “The Last Match”) which opened at Grand Central Arts Center’s Wayward Artist on November 11th, slides into their final weekend, closing this provocative, yet expedient show on Sunday with a 2PM matinee. Directed by Sydney Fitzgerald, who is also the Company Production Manager, it could hardly be better timed — and not just because obvious and powerful predators like Harvey Weinstein are being exposed every day. In a climate in which almost a quarter of female college students report being sexually assaulted, “Actually” is not only socially relevant, it’s also a thought-provoking character study.
When it comes to sex, what is consent and when can it be given? If you don’t remember giving it, does sex become assault? These are the muddy waters we navigate in “Actually.”
Built in Ms. Ziegler’s skilled deconstructionist hands, she gives us a suspenseful narrative, and creates two vivid main characters. But she never takes sides. Surprisingly, the play never exploits our feelings, or insults our intelligence either. It simply looks squarely at a difficult subject, with grace, humanity and discretion. Tom (Julian Smith) is black, cocky, musically gifted and the first in his family to go to college; Amber (Joy Bennett), middle class and Jewish, can’t decide whether her favorite book is “The Iliad” or “Gone Girl.” Both have endured family traumas, and both get caught up in the drunken, sexed-up maelstrom of freshman year.
It was only two years ago, when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued final regulations for schools from kindergarten to college to deal with sexual misconduct and dating violence, making them responsible for investigating “unwelcome sexual conduct” said to have occurred within their programs and activities. Now, due to Title IX regulations, colleges are becoming mini-police states with their own multimillion dollar justice systems. But the burden of proof in a sexual assault case is far lower on campus than it would be elsewhere, requiring only a “preponderance of evidence” to decide guilt — or “50 percent plus a feather,” as memorably put by Ms. Ziegler.
No wonder she stacks the deck so carefully: She wants us to feel what it’s like to live at that terrible crux. “Actually” is not, after all, a play about rape. It’s a play about the failure of justice when it deals with unknowable midpoints instead of obvious extremes. Amber and Tom are changed forever by events they can hardly recall, let alone judge. So how can anyone really judge them?
Here, we’re thrown into it right from the start, as Amber and Tom kiss outside a kegger. At first, Ms. Ziegler gives us every reason to believe that Amber is not only willing to have sex but is also the aggressor. She tells Tom that he should play her game of Two Truths and a Lie “if you wanna sleep with me tonight.” (He does.) Later, while dancing with him, she shocks even herself by stripping off her tank top.
It’s not long afterward, we learn, that the couple, both highly inebriated, tumble into bed together. Looking back on the sexual encounter, Tom considers it to have been consensual, while Amber says she was raped. They both wind up testifying before a university panel composed of “three neutral appointees,” looking to see if the school’s “sexual misconduct policy” has been violated. When she appears, Amber is asked, “Are you sure you clearly expressed your ‘lack of affirmative consent?’
Ms. Ziegler not only pulls up that rug but beats it mercilessly to see what dust might arise. Put aside for a moment the obvious proviso that how a woman flirts or dresses does not entitle a man to rape her. The playwright is not arguing that point. Rather, she paints Amber as unequivocally thrilled by the possibility of sleeping with Tom, and finds him appealing and physically attractive.
Nor does Ms. Ziegler argue that Amber’s cluelessness over ethnic disparities provokes him. On the contrary, he finds her “macro-aggressions” strangely adorable. It is also interesting that Ms. Ziegler frontloads Amber with many irritating traits, and gives Tom sympathetic ones, such as a disappeared father, a brave mother, a gay Indian buddy and a love of Bartok? What supposed incriminating trait would lead her to believe he would be the type to perform a rape? Maybe he’s impulsive or cavalier. We already know he enjoys playing the field. None of those things border on criminal. But mentioning the helix of mitigations would spoil all the surprises, not to mention the ending.
And the actors, called upon to switch gears constantly, sometimes making hairpin turns on unmarked roads while depicting flashes of vulnerability and confidence at the same time, keeps the audience guessing until the end. Both Julian Smith, as Tom, and Joy Bennett, as the more voluble Amber, deserve high praise for hitting their marks so accurately.
With consummate skill, Director Fitzgerald helms an intricate jigsaw puzzle in this profoundly painful exploration of a murky, sometimes treacherous sexual culture. The play’s great strength, and its great heartbreak, is that it allows us to see the fragile hearts of both Amber and Tom so clearly. There is brightness in this play, full of vibrant language and emotion, and in these two gifted actors playing characters who are both caught in a situation where nothing is black or white.
All in all, it’s a gripping, highly charged, whip-smart script, and, although quite funny in places, causes a great deal of afterthought: Amber and Tom, finding their way as freshmen at Princeton, happen to spend one night together that suddenly alters the course of their lives. They agree on the drinking, they agree on the attraction, and intimate consent was not clearly stated — but if welcomed in other ways, yet unspoken, is it still considered consent? By the end of its 95 minutes, you’ll have flip-flopped more times than a politician in the midterms.
THE WAYWARD ARTIST PRESENTS, ACTUALLY; Written by Anna Ziegler; Directed by Sydney Fitzgerald; Artistic Director & Sound Designer Craig Tyrl; Scenic Designer Avery Tang; Lighting Designer Camille Roberts; Stage Manager Jade Haney; Dramaturgy Tony Fitzgerald.
WITH: Joy Bennett (“Babette’s Feast”) as Amber; Julian Smith as Tom.
“Actually” runs November 11th through November 20th with remaining performances on Friday and Saturday at 7:30PM, and Sunday at 2PM, at 227 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, CA 92701. Tickets are $25 General Admission and $15 Student, and can be purchased at https://www.thewaywardartist.org/actually.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report