Off Broadway Reviews
We are living in either/or times which have made it impossible for adults to engage in civilized conversations about things they disagree on, but has made the work of some artists easier than ever since all they need to do is manipulate the right strings to let people know who they should root for. It's no coincidence that with more polarized factions in politics and society, the more didactic the resulting art becomes. Thank goodness for Anna Ziegler, the brilliant playwright who has little regard for our need of facile solutions, and in Actually (opening November 14 at Manhattan Theatre Club's The Stage at Studio II) delivers what could very well be the play of the season.
Down the street from City Center, about ten blocks away, Roundabout is producing Ziegler's The Last Match (two Ziegler plays in one season is a true blessing) in which two pro tennis players face each other in the game of a lifetime, but even if that play is tremendous in its own right, the match at the center of Actually is even more volatile. We meet Tom (Joshua Boone) and Amber (Alexandra Socha) two freshman students at Princeton who flirt casually before hooking up. The awkward Amber jokes about her inadequacies, while jock Tom is taken aback by her outspokenness and sudden bursts of confidence. We learn that their sexual encounter took a turn for the worst, as Amber accuses Tom of raping her.
Here's when things get complicated. From the get-go our instinct is to trust the victim, recent events in the news, and the horrendous realization that we are living in a world where sex is used to oppress others makes us take Amber's side. We would be terrible human beings if we didn't. But we start learning things about her that seem to contradict everything our conscience tells us we should know. She talks about previous sexual encounters where she failed to let her voice be heard, she says inappropriate things about her upbringing, and there's also the fact that Tom is African American, which at the beginning of the play results in Amber half-jokingly suggesting that he's in Princeton due to some diversity quota. How can we not trust this young man, who is the first member of his family to go to college and calls his mother "the love of his life"?
What Ziegler presents us with is the ultimate dilemma, she clashes two members of oppressed minorities and challenges us to stop thinking in the terms the news have made us so comfortable with for the past few years. Actually is a powerful indictment about the way in which appearances, prejudice, misconceptions and societal constructs like gender and race can take on immeasurable weight when stacked on each other. The play unfolds in a series of flashbacks and forwards in which we see how Amber pursued Tom believing he would never set his eye on her, and how Tom took advantage of his good looks to become the kind of lothario who would sleep with a different girl each night just because he could.
Ziegler's dialogues are filled with her usual combination of snappy repartee with the sudden phrase that seems to turn the world upside down (if she were to become a mainstream playwright, her wise quotes would at some point be found in posters and journals everywhere, although they're way too smart to be reduced to such mementos) and her ability to make us see entire worlds even when there's only two people onstage, reminds us of the literary power of drama. But in Actually there's a third voice that's as prominent as Amber and Tom's, the voice of each audience member. Not necessarily the loud gasps emitted by a few people sitting in the audience on the day I attended, but the little voice inside that challenges all the preset beliefs we've allowed ourselves to develop and nurture.
There is no easy way out of Actually and the play should elicit some provocative conversations among people willing to have them, and perhaps that's where the play's beauty lies. Without pretending to have the right answers, or even asking the right questions, Ziegler invites us to engage in dialogue. It's an invitation as seductive and dangerous as taking that extra drink when we know we shouldn't, heading home with a stranger, or even sharing our worldviews at a time when we're asked to think monolithically.