In Actually, we meet two freshmen, fresh out of Princeton University's bacchanalian welcome week. Amber, a mousy, non-athletic (although she does play for the squash team since that made her application look better) overly-analytic, Jewish English major and Tom, a hard-working, African-American pianist in the process of coping with his own private hardships, are faced with what begins as a very blurred examination of an evening spent together. As the byline of the play very accurately states, They agree on the drinking, they agree on the attraction, but consent is foggy, and if unspoken, can it be called consent?
What a powerful piece of theatre. Textually, this play is an actor's dream: a two person show consisting of pretty much two extended monologues, weaving in and out of some pretty brilliantly formed dialogue, full of character arcs and thought-provoking reveals. The show really makes you think, about the system, clouded interpretation, gender roles, societal pressures and more. I just checked out every Anna Ziegler play available at the LA Public Library. I'm interested in understanding more of her work, after watching this one.
TOM: How do you defend yourself? Is it what you say, or how you say it?
The play requires a powerful, specified, intently focused performance from each of the actors, which was certainly the case in this Geffen Playhouse performance, soon traveling to the Manhattan Theatre Club. Samantha Ressler and Jerry MacKinnon both deliver plentifully in their roles, but I think the way in which Tom's role is structured gives him the advantage performance-wise. Without giving away too much, the way this character projects himself to his peers and the general public is much more negatively interpreted by the listener than his inner personality. Not to mention a whole lot that he is both confronting and deflecting as a young man in his position. MacKinnon's approach and exploration of this role are something every actor might dream of achieving for but a moment in the privacy of an acting class, while he throws it down all night long on the Audrey Skirball Kenis stage. A young actor who serves on the Geffen's first-class front of house staff admitted to having an "acting boner" for MacKinnon's performance. I get that. While Ressler's performance is also impressive, her role, at least from my perspective, is not as challenging. It's very interesting, because although I really love this play, as an actor, at least in this stage in the writing, I would not want to play that role, even though it's brilliant. There were times when I applauded the character for her unyielding honesty, especially in the expression of her affections for Tom, while at other times, her position came off as almost robotic. I feel like this is a textual weakness and not an acting choice, although I have spoken with other patrons who felt otherwise. Amber's inner turmoil and detailed expression of her sexual exploration throughout childhood are captivating, I was just removed from my empathy for her at times when she would make statements ground in little to no emotional attachment,
What stirred up the most emotion for me in the play, I don't think was its main focus. But that's ok, this is theatre, everyone leaves with something different. This is what I wrote down: Such a different college experience than I knew. It makes me sad that people who signed up for an Ivy League education are having to deal with this. Questionable rape: definitely not OK. But what's also not OK is the so-called collegiate environment both these kids found themselves in. I think I am somewhat of a weird cannon in my college experience. I didn't drink until I was twenty-one (unless I was in Europe), I was always the designated driver and I had absolutely no problem saying no to men trying to take me to bed. Actually I even enjoyed that part. I get it, this isn't the case for many, if not most kids their freshmen year of college. I had to take a step back mentally and do my best not to judge the characters poorly, just because that wasn't my personal background. However, there was a very informative article by Amy Levinson in the program that called me to lean further in to this environment somewhat foreign to me otherwise. In it she cites that,
"one in five women and one in sixteen men are sexually assaulted while in college"
"63.3% of men at one university who self-reported acts qualifying as rape or attempted rape admitted to committing repeat rapes"
I can't emphasize enough how much it breaks my heart that kids are pressured to drink and have sex, at all, if not night after night after night and not even enjoy it. Multiple times in the play, Amber expresses the pressure she faces from her peers, or people from her squash team she has known for a week or less, to drink, even though she thinks it tastes gross and to hook up with guys, that she may not even be attracted to. Tom acknowledges that he could drink and have sex with numerous women at these parties night after night, and that it didn't even really matter what they looked like. I'm not vicitmising these characters or vilanizing them either, just restating what they claimed to experience in college. So, why is this happening at Princeton? Honestly, I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. Eighteen-year-olds are being welcomed to one of the greatest schools in the country, in the world, through drinking beyond comprehension and the point where one even cares anymore what their sexual partner looks like? Kids who slaved over near-prefect test scores, boundless extracurriculars, hours upon hours of community service, awards, and AP classes? Kids whose parents might have worked an extra job or two in order for them to compete at this level? That's not the education I want. It breaks my heart. And unfortunately it's happening everywhere.
This play, for me at least, is not only a cautionary tale of sorts, but a sad reminder of contemporary views on sexual activity. I can imagine that the number of student matinee performances for high school and college students have made an impact on more than a few. We need to be talking about THIS. Not shaming each other in any way. How can we fix what we don't understand? Talk. I hope that this play causes us to check ourselves and our behavior, as well as our willingness to check in with people around us. To be a better listener, as the American theatre has been telling me for nearly all of 2017 so far.
I highly encourage you to see this show. Whether you are a parent, a student or a graduate, this play will cause you to reflect on the weight of issues like this, and how our media, education system and family pressures weigh in. Actually runs at the Geffen Playhouse through June 11th. I would also encourage you to watch it on a Talk Back Tuesday, as the show is sure to incite and invite conversation.