Review of Actually, TheaterWorks
The dramatic situation in Anna Ziegler’s Actually, which closes this weekend at TheaterWorks, directed by Taneisha Duggan, could happen, more or less, to any couple. When sex goes bad, it’s usually only a matter for the persons involved. But when the couple in question are freshmen at a major university—in this case Princeton—the fall-out about what did or didn’t happen becomes a matter for administration. And that way much frustration lies—on all sides.
Ziegler’s script—which is a two-person play in which some other key figures are spoken of but never appear—opens with the kegger where Tom (Ronald Emile) and Amber (Arielle Siegel) meet-up and then, fueled by alcohol and more-than-fleeting attraction, proceed to hook-up. They’ve been aware of each other with almost uncanny frequency in that first week of classes and get-acquainted activities and rushes and the like. Now they come face to face and—after Tom with urgent exasperation tells Amber to stop talking—kiss.
We get to see that much. All else is hearsay by the participants; though both are pretty sure what happened, their views of the events diverge on key points. On the way to the hearing—where a committee of faculty will decide if Tom’s actions will merit disciplinary action—we learn about these two teens in their own words, addressed to us, the audience, in a hopscotch of statements and realizations. The tone of what each has to say veers in interesting ways, part confession, part self-analysis, part defense, and part confusion. That last part is a major factor and derives mostly from not really understanding their own motivations or the position they allowed their vulnerability to their own desires and the desires of another to put them in.
What’s more than a little overbearing about Ziegler’s play is that everything we learn about these characters is tainted by the big event that is coloring their current discomfort. So Tom is at pains to establish that he’s not the kind of guy that would intentionally rape anyone, and Amber mostly aims to convince us that she had no bad motives and that her story is true. Both characters are shown to be truly affectionate toward each other, which is why the emphasis of the play’s inconclusive conclusion seems to fall so heavily on what the act of seeking some kind intervention has brought about. Because these two never got together and discussed their night of “yes” or “no” or “maybe so” (or “actually,” which Amber seemed to want to use as a safe-word), they instead plead before a committee they both mostly distrust and deride.
In speaking of themselves, the students are personable, though with very different approaches. Ronald Emile gets across Tom’s sense of himself as a successful charmer, a ladies’ man who doesn’t take any particular woman too seriously. His account of some trouble in high school, due to his response to advances by a teacher, set him up—in his own view—as someone who has to beat ‘em off. So, of course, when he gets alone with Amber she’ll be eager for the treat of Tom. For all his obtuseness, Tom is too earnest to be disbelieved. The problem is that he really doesn’t remember too well what occurred in his dorm room with Amber.
Amber—in Arielle Siegel’s delivery—is apt to say things that feel like special pleading, then look askance as if thinking “did I really say that?” She’s a study in nervous tics and a self-consciousness that you’ll either find charming or tedious. (For me, it was the latter.) She’s apt to make assumptions such as Tom’s being black had the same weight on his application that playing squash did on hers, and to say that, as an African American and Jewish American, respectively, Tom and she grew up with the sense that they might be rounded up at some point.
The staging by director Duggan helps mightily, as the actors move about in nicely choreographed vignettes, and the support of incidental music helps create moods that the matter-of-fact chat language of the characters doesn’t do much. Occasionally there’s some fun with words or a quirky verbal expression gets toyed with, the way people do who are learning how someone from somewhere else talks. There’s also a keen sense of how easy it is to get carried away with talking, saying what you didn’t quite mean or meaning something you didn’t quite think.
Even more so than Girlfriend, the previous show at TheaterWorks, Actually is a two-hander that could use some fleshing out. Ziegler has written-in a “hot” Indian friend (who thinks he and Tom are in love) and a bossy sorta mean girl (named Heather, of course) who seems to be the driving force behind Amber wanting to get laid and then going to authorities when she was after she stopped wanting to be. The reliance on these sideline characters, along with a few too many clichéd locutions and asides about teen life, college, and cultural markers of our day, make Ziegler’s play less than the sharply observed social criticism it seems to want to be.
But then it’s hard to say for certain what it wants to be. Ziegler might just be trying to beguile the time by looking like the time, as Lady Macbeth might say. The play is best at informing Tom and Amber with much plausible feeling, then leaves their story hanging by a feather.
By Anna Ziegler
Directed by Taneisha Duggan
Set Design: Jean Kim; Costume Design: Sydney Gallas; Lighting Design: Amith A. Chandrashaker; Sound Design: Julian Evans; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth
Cast: Ronald Emile, Arielle Siegel
(At Wadsworth Athenaeum)
May 22-June 23, 2019