Review: ‘Actually’ by Theater J at Arena Stage

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The idea of sexual consent might seem simple: no means stop and yes means carry on. In practice, however, nothing could be further from the truth. The predicaments stemming from this issue that so many individuals–particularly young people, and particularly college students–find themselves in, see countless voices struggling to evaluate the facts and create justice. Actually, the latest production by Theater J, fearlessly broaches the subject of when sex becomes rape, and challenges audiences to think through a complex moral dilemma as facts unfold in a way that upsets attempts at clear-cut decision making.

Jaysen Wright and Sylvia Kates in Theater J's Actually, now playing at Arena Stage. Photo courtesy of Theater J.
Jaysen Wright and Sylvia Kates in Theater J’s Actually, now playing at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Playwright Anna Ziegler’s latest work is deceptively simple. Two Princeton freshmen, Amber (Sylvia Kates) and Thomas Anthony (Jaysen Wright), are the play’s only characters, and the drama unfolds as a series of monologues from one side of the story to the other.

Aside from a questionable drunken hookup one night, the two share little in common. Amber is a mousy Jewish woman from a wealthy family and Tom is a handsome black man plucked from poverty. Amber is a nervous talker with charming quirks and absolutely no game, while Tom is a smooth ladies’ man who has been “playing the field” since high school.

Amber considers sex terrifying, but she’s drawn to the idea of wielding power over a man. At one point she recalls losing her virginity–painful but worth it in her eyes because now she “knows what he sounds like when he comes.” Meanwhile, Tom offers a thoroughly different early sex story–he confesses to the time he was caught in the act after a younger teacher in high school comes on to him in the music room. She was fired, he remembers, but a sneaking suspicion lingers that others hold him equally accountable. As a black man, he wonders whether they consider him deprived.

The lawn green floor of the minimally designed stage evokes the idyllic space of privilege that an institution like Princeton has to offer. Place two wooden chairs on opposite sides of this pasture and the image begins to evoke the dimensions of a courtroom, the space between an open contest.

From the opening scene, we’re thrown right into the action like referees, as Amber and Tom drunkenly kiss outside of a frat party. Amber is aggressive with a cooler-than-thou Tom, persuading him to play a flirty game of two truths and a lie with the promise of a sexual denouement. Don’t get me wrong, what follows isn’t as basic as a critique of the idea that rape is a natural consequence of a woman’s promiscuity–that “she was asking for it,” as they say.

We soon learn that Amber has been eyeing Tom since intro psych, and that she’s completely smitten with the idea of someone like her–an awkward, plain-looking girl with body issues–sleeping with Tom, or in the heartthrob long-form, Thomas Anthony. Yet Tom is practically a stranger, and in spite of not knowing much about him aside from the fact that he’s constantly with his best friend Sunil, or “the Indian Channing Tatum,” Amber is a few bad ideas away from writing his name all over her notebook in gel pen.

Naturally, Tom doesn’t think of Amber in this way. He’s used to hooking up with a new girl, supposedly daily, and when Sunil points out that poor Amber has been staring at him across the classroom, Tom cavalierly approaches her even though the friend she’s with is much “hotter.” So goes the game for a Casanova like Tom, who likes women much more than he’s ever liked any single woman.

Tom can be impulsive and rather misogynist in the way he objectifies women as mere potential sexual partners. But then, neither is Amber a perfectly “good” person. She is naive, self-concerned, and clueless as to the lives and feelings of others (she points out that Tom’s blackness helped him get into Princeton).

The scale continues to tip back and forth between Amber and Tom, and Ziegler’s script is electrifying, full of vibrant language and emotion that makes these characters as difficult, and at times irritating, as they are sympathetic. Ziegler cleverly taps into the comedy of the student experience, while also probing the deeply-rooted insecurities of young people freshly let loose unto a world of strangers, sex, and binge drinking. The script, however, does tilt towards a more nuanced appreciation of Amber, whose small psychological tics come across brilliantly in Kates’ performance. Ziegler is a white woman, so a better understanding of the character more closely aligned to her experience is only natural. But because Tom is described primarily in terms of what happens to him as a condition of his identity, this does have the effect of tilting the pendulum slightly in Tom’s favor.

Ultimately the play basks in indecision, adding layer after layer of testimony from both camps to the point that everything turns a muddled gray. Though the audience is invited, in a sense, to participate as a judge, the catch is that we’re tasked with undoing a Gordian knot. From the standpoint of the accountability mechanisms intended to take swift action on matters of sexual violence, this ambiguity will prove debilitating to any well-oiled system. In the age of #metoo, in which we are urged to first and foremost believe women, Actually poses a situation that would disrupt or delegitimize procedures stemming from the desire to empower victims, without offering much of a solution.

Director Johanna Gruenhut’s production of Actually is absolutely compelling theater–suspenseful, easy to be swallowed up by, and helmed by two powerful performers in Kates and Wright. As a commentary on the question of sexual consent, the play goes no farther than merely reproducing the unbearable gray area that so many black and white judgments must disregard. As an immersive examination of the young people trapped in this quandary, Actually knocks it out of the park.

Set and Lighting Design by Jesse Belsky; Costume Design by Sarah Cubbage; Sound Design by Evan Cooke

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

While Theater J is out of house this season for renovations, Actually plays through November 18, 2018, at Arena Stage — 1101 6th Street SW, Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at 202-777-3210 (1-4 pm, Monday through Friday) or go online

Note: Theater J’s box office and Will Call will be located outside Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle on the second level beginning one hour before each performance.

Click to read John Stoltenberg’s Magic Time! column about Actually. 

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