Theatre Review: Actually

Actually by Anna Ziegler
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Manhattan Theatre Club
@New York City Center—The Studio @ Stage II
Reviewed by Scott Klavan
November 15, 2017

The joylessness and frustration of modern young love is dramatized with a sharp pen in Anna Ziegler’s two-person, 90-minute one-act Actually presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center’s Stage II. In its story of a rape charge at Princeton by a white Jewish female against an African-American male, Ziegler captures the timeless loneliness and yearning pulling the sexes together, and the peculiar contemporary suspicion, hypocrisy, and self-hatred driving them apart. While the production sometimes lets the text down, the play’s provoking bitterness keeps us watching.

The female, Amber (Alexandra Socha), is a smart outsider, compulsively insecure, hurt by the death of her father, her own overthinking, and unhelpful relationships with fellow women students, driven to explore her sensuality, fit in, and find love. The male, Tom (Joshua Boone), the first of his family to go to college, is a talented musician and handsome ladies’ man, using sex and glib humor to push aside his own father’s desertion and his often troubling thoughts about his own character. On campus, the two freshmen are attracted to each other. They meet for innocent ice cream, then party in a night of heavily drunken make-out, ending in the bottom bunk in Tom’s room. The next morning, Amber, disturbed, considers whether the ultimate act itself was consensual, whether she approved what happened, or was raped. Egged on by women friends and her dorm RA, Amber presses charges; the two lovers are plunged into a Title IX quagmire, testifying in a hearing that runs roughshod over personal privacy and breaks everyone down into humiliation and tears. 

Ziegler is one of theater’s most popular and produced new playwrights; she even has another play currently running in New York City: The Last Match, at the Roundabout Theater’s Off-Broadway branch. There are many strong moments of writing here: the details of the personalities, childhoods, and adolescence of the characters—Amber’s near-constant use of irony, her disappointment with her mother, grief over her father, her intellectual restlessness; Tom’s love of music, proud and simultaneously apologetic aggression, closeness to his mother—are illustrated with beautifully full, specific, and natural language. This gives complexity to the figures, and, so, plants an ambiguity in the right/wrong aspect of the rape charge. The playwright shows courage in taking on the academic scolds and authoritarians of the campus court, painting them as vain and pretentious, loving their power to judge and ruin lives. Insight in her portrayal of the students’ hook-ups: in the midst of their most powerful, vibrant, “alive” time, they are haunted by the inchoate sense that they’ve got to get moving, it won’t last, time is of the essence. Thematically intriguing: the students and their elders’ necessity to stop and concretely define experiences that perpetually slip away, resisting names. (Which, of course, also ties into the difficulty of placing blame in the legalistic hearing of an intimate human act.)

There are occasional weaknesses: an offstage subplot featuring Tom and his gay friend slips into cliché; Tom’s mother’s health diagnosis, important, happening the same day as the sex act with Amber, is left out of the hearing scenes, perhaps to clear the way for a cleaner moral message. A too-full ending section, wherein the characters, and the playwright, throw everything against the wall. Amber, and Ziegler, ultimately settle on a standard old-school female hatred of the handsome stud-guy: Tom’s punished basically because he’s “mean.” It’s not good enough, but given the political pressures the writer must have been under, the best we can expect in today’s theater.    

There are direction issues. Lileana Blain-Cruz, just off the admired Pipeline at Lincoln Center, is unaccountably disengaged. The two characters stand in the same spots throughout much of the work: in front of their two chairs, Amber facing the audience on stage left, Tom stage right. Then, as if the director suddenly realized it was static, they change places, to little illumination and effect. Tech, sound, and lights are rarely utilized. Some sequences are unfocused; it gets hard to tell what a segment “means,” even what information is most important, which negligible. Maybe this kind of laissez-faire direction is an attempt to keep things clean and devoid of theatrical stereotypes. But even that is not clear; purposeful creativity is lacking.

An unfair onus is placed on the actors and this can work against the script. It’s not nice to say, because she’s a wildly resourceful, personable young actress, but Alexandra Socha, recreating her role as Amber from the earlier Williamstown Theatre Festival production, employs a mannered façade, emanating not from the character, but the performer. The superficial actorliness makes Ziegler’s words seem writerly, and prevents us from fully believing in the character and her challenges. When Amber describes herself near the end as someone who hates her own body, it’s only clear then, from the words; we didn’t get it from the inner life all along. However, when momentarily Socha leans on a chair, talking about “sorrow,” she relaxes and immerses herself, and we see the potentially superlative performance that one expects will emerge consistently later in the run, or when and if the play moves to a larger house. 

Joshua Boone as Tom is highly successful, a charismatic young actor with a full arsenal of technical and emotional gifts. He deepens the character from the page, giving us the bravado and sensitivity necessary to connect us with the student on trial. His expression of fear and need for his mother is the most touching moment of the night.

Actually is running at City Center, mid-town west, two blocks from both Carnegie Hall and MOMA, in its Studio II, a downstairs upscale simple black box. Tickets are comparatively low ($30), and theatrical values modest. The attempt would seem to be to nurture young talent, and coax a young audience to attend. As noted often in these reviews, this is a tough task today with a non-musical. Actually would be exciting for the 20s crowd, but at least during the mid-week evening show this reviewer attended, only two heads of full dark hair were counted among the grey-hairs and baldies.    

The play is nothing if not topical. In September, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos eliminated the Obama administration Title IX policies regarding campus sexual assault, claiming accused students, mostly male, were not getting due process. The old rules gratified feminists and outraged some parents; the new ones, still to be determined, are likely to cause the reverse response. To read or watch the news reveals an American society and culture that is sexually sick: both repressed and libidinous, guilt-ridden with tongues hanging out of mouths.  From Hollywood to Washington to the everyday office and school, we desperately promote a surface “hotness,” but express lust and needful desire with a crazy combination of panic, masturbatory childishness, animalism, and a punitive school-marm Puritanism. Nicki Minaj is giving John Calvin a lap dance; it’s not going well.  

The real victims are our children, who, inheriting older folks’ erotic shame, demand perfection from themselves and the other, and failing that, ladle on the inward flagellation and outward revenge, never getting the chance to enjoy each other in a shared healthful wholesome passion. As represented in the pointed, acrid new play Actually, the kids are beaten before they start. 

Actually at the Manhattan Theatre Club

Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published inBest American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 2014, he starred in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, earning him a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival 2015.  He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, at the United Solo Festival in New York, and a series of staged readings of a new comedy, Sheila & Angelo, at the Dramatist Guild. In 2015, he appeared in the Off-Broadway production of the musical Sayonara, for Pan Asian Rep. Scott directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. He is currently directing and developing the play One Moment, by Broadway producer James Fuld, Jr. Earlier in 2017, he directed and co-wrote with Del Fidanque Off-Line and directed Night Shadows  by Lynda Crawford, in Emerging Artists Theatre’s (EAT) New Work Series. Klavan is a Lifetime Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop. He currently teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations. 

Scott Klavan’s Website 

Scott Klavan’s Review of Brits Off Broadway

Scott Klavan’s Review of Oslo 

Scott Klavan’s Review of Come From Away 

Scott Klavan’s Review of The Hairy Ape

Scott Klavan’s Review of Beauty Queen of Leenane

Scott Klavan on Political Theater 

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