Leaving Anna Ziegler’s taut, devastating new play Actually — directed with a deft, unsparing sense of forward motion by Lileana Blain-Cruz at MTC — I was haunted by echoes of sound designer Jane Shaw’s effective and deceptively upbeat preshow. It’s a collection of contemporary club music, the most bump-and-grindable earworm of all inevitably being a remix of that stupidly catchy, number-one-most-streamed-song-on-Spotify, Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You.” When I took my seat, knowing that I was about to see a play about “the highly charged topic of sexual consent,” I very soon found myself unsettled by lyrics like, “Say, boy, let’s not talk too much / Grab on my waist and put that body on me.” For the next 85 minutes, that feeling only deepened. Actually is a smart, profoundly painful exploration of the murky, treacherous sexual culture this country is mired in — a culture where young men and women laden with crippling psychological baggage feel pressured to pack it all away, drink to excess, and, above all, not talk too much. A perfect formula for life-altering misunderstanding and disaster.
The play unfolds in large part as a pair of overlapping monologues, a kind of millennial De Profundis. Amber Cohen and Tom Anthony, two students involved in a Title IX trial at Princeton, walk us through their memories, not only of “what happened” between them but of the experiences that have shaped them, somehow leading to this excruciating moment of judgment. The actors turn to speak to each other only a few times — in a flashback to the party that preceded the encounter now so terribly in question, and at a single breaking point in their account of the trial, where their memories diverge so drastically that they truly frighten and enrage each other. Earlier, Tom, who reads as chill and confident, has told us his impressions of this “weird” high-strung girl who’s “not shy, exactly,” talks “Usain Bolt–fast,” and “can’t look me in the eye.” It’s chilling to realize just how little eye contact there is between the characters in Actually, even when they do share a scene together. They can open up to us, spilling their histories and hangups and their deepest fears over the fourth wall, but they come to each other so twisted up with insecurities — their vision so obscured by a looming, inadequate image of themselves — that they can’t really see the other person until it’s too late.
Actually’s great strength, and its great heartbreak, is that it allows us to see both Amber and Tom so fully. They aren’t just another ugly campus news item, a seemingly clear case of where to place our sympathy and where our wrathful censure. They aren’t “the matter of Anthony-dash-Cohen,” as their Title IX investigation is so clinically titled. They are a young black man and a young Jewish woman. They are a boy whose father left and whose mother is sick, and a girl whose father — who “always listened to me and seemed to care what I had to say”— is dead and whose mother encourages her not to eat carbohydrates “if you ever want to get married.” They are a young man who plays piano rapturously and with great promise because a teacher who actually cared offered him free lessons as a child, and a young woman who doesn’t see herself as having anything more than a “minor talent” in writing and a mediocre (though useful for college admissions) gift for squash. They are a boy who knows he’s handsome and whose sexual career began early, and a girl who’s had sex once — a physically painful first time with a best friend’s drunk brother after an awkward Passover seder, an encounter which left her “always silent during sex, always always.” They are a son who’s the first in his family to go to college, let alone an Ivy League school, and a daughter of academics. And they are both college freshmen: overwhelmed, overstimulated, underslept, surrounded by strangers, full of tension, uncertainty, and alcohol. What could possibly go wrong?
If that sounds flip, it’s not meant to. Actually conjures the destabilizing jump to light speed of the college transition with the kind of total emotional recall that makes your palms start to sweat. “We go out every night because everyone goes out every night,” Amber chatters nervously. “It’s not peer pressure so much as fear. Like, if I don’t do this, I might have to think about who I am and where I am and all of that is just too …” Too scary to finish the sentence. Too scary to stop drinking. It’s a miracle anyone makes it through such choppy waters unscathed.
Not that Ziegler’s incisive chronicling of the complexities of early college chaos amounts to sexual-assault apologism. The play is far too smart for that. It knows rape and assault are all too real and regular, that we’re living in a world where every day we learn of horrible abuses enacted without repercussions for years on end by powerful, culture-shaping men. It knows that shit like this — and this and this and this — goes down every day. But it’s also too smart to give in to the current frenzy for moral absolutism. The niggling little adverb of its title doesn’t only refer to the moment in which consent becomes questionable (Amber didn’t say “No” but she did say “Actually, um …”) — it’s also a way of gently prying open our clenched fists, ever ready to be raised in righteous anger. Actually, it’s saying with Wildean wisdom, the truth is rarely pure and never simple. And it sure as hell won’t set you free.
Ziegler isn’t the only one responsible for the compelling grip of uneasiness in which Actually suspends its audience: Blain-Cruz and her two fine actors, Alexandra Socha and Joshua Boone, are also playing each note of the text with real drive, nuance, and depth of feeling. Not to mention, even in this dangerous terrain, humor. Socha and Boone expertly navigate the show’s shifts of tone — from tortured, frightened, and confessional as their trial progresses, to inviting and conversational in their role as storytellers, generous friends to us in the audience. Their exchange over whether being black helped Tom get into Princeton buzzes with wry observance of our current, ultracareful idiom: “Um. You know you can’t say that. Right?” asks Tom, eyebrow raised. “But it’s not a microaggression or anything,” Amber innocently insists, to which Tom responds dryly, “Cause it’s like a macro-aggression.”
Or take the moment in which Blain-Cruz and lighting designer Yi Zhao suddenly switch the focus to Amber, just after a befuddled Tom has tried to describe this girl’s strange combination of neuroses and intellectual confidence, and Alexandra Sochi flicks her gaze out to us and quips, “A little thing about Judaism?” It’s undeniably funny, and it’s a poignant illustration of the distance between these two young, searching humans. What to Tom is an utterly weird way of moving through the world is, for Amber, an inborn identity fired in a kiln of years of specific experience. And vice versa. “I don’t want to be so naïve as to say Jews and African-Americans have all this stuff in common,” Amber philosophizes when she recalls first developing a crush on Tom, “but they have some stuff in common … Like not really wanting to go camping, or to Nantucket, and also the deep and unwavering fear that at any moment they will be rounded up and killed.”
Actually’s wit and its intelligence are part of what makes the complex darkness at its center hit so hard. There is brightness in this play, and in these people, and to see its sparks overwhelmed by such fearful and familiar shadows is shattering. In moments, it’s even revelatory. Near the play’s end, Ziegler makes her most profound suggestion in the form of a dawning realization by Amber: “I can’t just be silent anymore,” Amber ventures, speaking much more slowly and deliberately than is her wont, “I can’t do that to myself … But the cost of not doing that to myself anymore is … Tom.” The heartbreaking wisdom of Actually is its recognition that so many young women have gone through their entire young lives learning to say — or at least to imply — Yes: learning to accommodate, learning to just deal with it, learning not to fight or object or make themselves a nuisance or a burden or, god forbid, a bitch. Amber’s accusation of Tom is ultimately an accusation of a world that taught her to acquiesce, to go along, to be always always silent. And though she must make it, it has collateral damage in the form of another person, one with his own social programming, his own good intentions and great fears. This is the tragedy of Actually and of our world: In our zeal to fix a broken system, we wind up breaking human beings.
Remember that one song by the Verve Pipe? You know the one. It’s too ’90s to feature in Actually’s hypercontemporary soundscape, but as I left the theater, I couldn’t get its chorus out of my head:
For the life of me
I cannot remember
What made us think that we were wise and we’d never compromise
For the life of me
I cannot believe
We’d ever die for these sins
We were merely freshmen.
The words butted up against “Shape of You”’s bubbly, insistent handsiness, and I couldn’t help thinking: This is the world we’ve created — a deadly cycle of Ed Sheeran Friday nights and Verve Pipe Saturday mornings.
Actually is at City Center.