Jerry MacKinnon and Samantha Ressler in Actually, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, at the Geffen Playhouse.
Jerry MacKinnon and Samantha Ressler in Actually, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, at the Geffen Playhouse.
(© Chris Whitaker)

While conventional wisdom says that there are at least two sides to every disagreement, Actually, Anna Ziegler's play chronicling the thorny outcome of a sexual encounter between two Princeton students, seems to offer a dozen perspectives. That's how richly layered this world premiere production is. Actually is now running at the Geffen Playhouse en route to its co-producing entity, the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Employing a bare stage, two chairs, some poignant lighting by Lap Chi Chu, and atmospheric sound by Vincent Olivieri, director Tyne Rafaeli vividly creates the world of a present-day college campus — a dorm room, a dining hall, a music room. Two freshmen whose journeys fatefully intersect, Tom (Jerry MacKinnon) and Amber (Samantha Ressler) feel like they are surrounded by a bustling collegiate universe while simultaneously being the two most isolated individuals on the planet.

Tom is handsome and confident, just this side of arrogant. A talented musician, he is the first in his family to attend college, and he is catnip to women of all ages. The smart, quirky, less-attractive Amber is a bit of a motormouth. She's accustomed to being eclipsed by her prettier and sexier friends, but she is also warm and highly charismatic. Tom realizes that she is special and vice versa. Tom is an African-American; Amber is a white middle-class Jew. Since these two very different people have ended up at the same prestigious Ivy League School, that sort of makes them equals — until it doesn't.

In the play's first scene, Tom and Amber share a kiss, followed by banter, followed by Amber suggesting a round of "Two Truths and a Lie." "I hate games," says Tom, to which Amber replies, "If you want to sleep with me tonight, you'll play."

The action jumps to an empty lecture hall where, a few days later, Tom and Amber are being interviewed by a three-person panel convened to determine whether a violation of the Education Code's Title IX has taken place. Amber has accused Tom of rape. Tom says the sex was entirely consensual. The play's title refers both to the situational ambiguity and to the word that Amber uttered at a critical moment during the encounter. The hearing – which both characters recount – is not, strictly speaking, a trial.

Ziegler is less concerned with what happened than with whom it has happened to. Over the play's 90 minutes, Ziegler, MacKinnon, and Ressler craft and develop these characters with such compassion, intelligence, and insight that the hot-button issue of campus date rape nearly falls away. The characters often speak directly to the audience rather than to the panel. We learn critical information about Tom and Amber, sometimes before they learn it about each other.

Their social backgrounds and friends notwithstanding, both characters are essentially misfits who have found each other at exactly the right moment, but who have found a way to ruin things. Under Rafaeli's direction, Actually makes its issues complicated, and never passes judgment. Charming and cocksure Tom and too-honest Amber share equal culpability.

MacKinnon's convincing portrayal of Tom's self-adoration threatens to turn Tom into the play's demon, but before that can happen, MacKinnon peels away layers, exposes his character's wounds, and hooks us. Tom may be many things, but he is never devious, and with MacKinnon at the controls, the character is consistently magnetic.

Like MacKinnon, Ressler gives us a character who invites early judgment; it takes a while to decide whether Amber is a conniver, an outright victim, or something in between. Ultimately, the more we learn about this tremendously sad young woman and her feelings toward Tom, the more interesting Actually gets. Ziegler writes dialogue that is equal parts humor and poignancy, and the nakedness with which Ressler tackles a couple of Amber's more revelatory moments are enough to bring you to tears.

Only a writer as shrewd as Ziegler can construct a 90-minute, dual-character study around a situation that everybody thinks they understand. Actually is too smart for clichés. It is not to be missed.