Actually | a Curtainup Review
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A CurtainUp Review

It wasn't an actual trial. It was a hearing but it felt like a trial. We sat across from each other. At these long wooden tables. I felt like I was a character in The Crucible. — Amber
Joshua Boone and Alexandra Socha (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
The Crucible per the quote above, so may Tom (Joshua Boone), the other character in the quasi-trial at the heart of Anna Ziegler's second play currently running at prestigious Off-Broadway theaters (see links at end of this review). The hearing that we witness has been called by a university committee investigating non-consensual sexual behavior — in short, to determine whether their encounter in Tom's room was date rape or not.

Unlike the current rash of reports about sexual harassment in the workplace, this is a case of equally problematic sexual behavior patterns that have been common on college campuses for years. Most have been the result of the students involved being drunk so that establishing what happened is a case of he said/she said. Naturally, intoxication makes for unreliable memories of what actually happened. No wonder that title word pops up repeatedly, especially in Amber's dialogue.

Ms. Ziegler's title makes it rather irresistible for me to use it myself. You see, that Amber-Tom consensual/rape confrontation began with their connecting innocently and quite sweetly. Actually, she liked him. Actually, he liked her. However, a drunken campus social gathering ends up wth an inebriated Amber and Tom headed into touchy territory. They end up in his room.

The playwright was clearly influenced by guidelines issued in 2011 in response to reports that 90 percent of cases of sexual violence going unreported. Something known as a "Dear Colleague Letter," detailing campus proceedings before a group of faculty members, is the basis for the hearing in that follows Amber's going public with a complaint made in confidence to a friend that Tom practically raped her during their get-together in his room.

The setup couldn't be more basic: The two actors appear throughout, on a stage which features just two chairs and a wood-paneled backdrop provided by scenic designer Adam Rigg. The back and forth shifts between active interchanges and audience-addressing past and present recollections are established with different color lights by Yi Zhao.

While the plot begins with a kiss and that's the only sexual contact we actually witness, Ms. Ziegler doesn't avoid specifics — how Amber and Tom feel about their bodies, their prior sexual experiences, and their time in Tom's bed.

Sexual intercourse clearly did happen, but what's up for debate (and the reason for the hearing) is whether she wanted him to stop or not. And that debate does start out tentative and confused, but eventually grows heated and hostile.

Essentially the play is a narrative about two young people from very different backgrounds. Her being Jewish and he African-American ratchets up the complications. Both find themselves still new and not completely comfortable in a prestigious university. She was admitted because she played squash (mediocre) in high school and they needed players for their squash team; he because he's a top quality pianist).

Amber's physical quirks and compulsive talking, plus her descriptions of her underwhelming experiences with the opposite sex make her insecurity a more obvious. While he seems cool, and confident about his attractiveness, Tom too is on the same page as Amber emotionally. As he puts it "In some ways I've been on trial my entire life."

Both Amber and Tom are basically likeable, attractive young people whose meetup could easly have turned into a contemporary romance. Instead they fall victim to several mistakes and, more importantly, an all too relevant situation of heavy drinking on college campuses. The real villain here is not so much a violent male or a too easily swayed and possibly prevaricating female, but the uncontrolled use of alcohol.

It's not easy being on stage nonstop and having to navigate between active scenes and fourth wall breaking narration. Both actors manage to give lively and convincing performances. Director Lileana Blain Cruz keeps things moving along. She does tend to allow Socha to be quirkily neurotic to excess and to repeat her physical shtik.

As for Ziegler's script, the dialogue is smart and often quite funny. She has packed it with an overabundance of issues such as Tom's background in a single parent home, his beloved mother's cancer, and his gay roommate's making moves on him.

My quibbles notwithstanding, Ziegler is one of the current theater's most productive and worth watching young playwrights. Below a link to her plays reviewed at Curtainup, including the concurrently running The Last Match.
Dov and Ali
Delicate Ship> Photograph 51
The Last Match
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Actually by Anna Ziegler
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz

Cast: Joshua Boone (Tom), Alexandra Socha (Amber)
Sets:Adam Rigg
Costumes:Paloma Young
Lighting:Yi Zhao
Sound: Jane Shaw
Stage Manager: Dane Urban
Running Time: 90 minutes
MTC in association with williamstown Theatre Festival, Studio Stage at City Center
From 10/31/17; opening 11/14/17; closing 12/10/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at November 11th press matinee

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