Amber (Ella Dershowitz) drinks too much the night she meets Tom (Michael Curry) at a college party. They share a flask and flirt. She asks him to play the game Two Truths and a Lie. He says he doesn’t like to play games. Pleading and insistent she coyly says, if you want to sleep with me tonight you’ll play the game. Tom smiles broadly thinking he’s going to get lucky and they begin to play. From racial and gender politics to the use of language and the inexactness of memory, Anna Ziegler complicates every aspect of her he said, she said one-act play Actually (at the Aurora Theatre through May 5).
When the game ends, they spend the night in Tom’s dorm room. The next day Amber, a Jewish girl from the suburbs, accuses Tom, who’s black, of raping her. The play is structured as a pas de deux between them. They slip backward and forward in time. Ziegler’s transitions throughout — from the past to the present and to the past again — are seamless. Each character has several monologues in which to tell his or her side of the story to the audience, both acting as the primary witness in their own defense. Those scenes are complemented by reenactments of the two together on campus, on a first date, on the night in question and, finally, at a college hearing.
Ziegler has drawn a portrait of a young woman who’s confused enough to admit to “wanting and not wanting” to have sex. Amber lives in that liminal space between late adolescence and early adulthood. College is an ideal time to experiment with one’s sexuality but her hormones are outpacing her emotional maturity. She recounts a sexual encounter from the year before when a boy made her physically uncomfortable but she didn’t ask him to stop. Away from home, Amber has become more vocal but she says an awful lot without being able to determine what it is exactly that she wants from Tom.
The playwright is careful not to blame her for her uncertainty — at 18, it’s okay to still be figuring things out — but Ziegler doesn’t let anyone forget that Tom has, as a black man in America, more to lose whether the allegation is true or false. As the play continues, she casts just as much doubt on Amber’s version of events as she does on Tom’s. All the while Ziegler further muddies our response. Neither character is entirely sympathetic, or, she makes them equally unsympathetic. They both are self-absorbed enough that they make many bad decisions — the way that college freshmen often do.
In his spare time, Tom plays jazz and classical piano to relax. He tells us that Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 is his favorite. Ziegler weighted this choice with meaning because it’s referred to as the “Jeunehomme” or “young man” concerto. She’s not blaming Amber for not speaking up for herself — she doesn’t have enough self-confidence to be more assertive. But Ziegler does suggest that the evening might have turned out differently had she known him better, especially if she was going to be drinking. But Amber trusted her body with a handsome stranger, a young man who’s only recently left boyhood, and who was as drunk as she was. As such, he may not have led their interaction in bed with his brain or his best self.
Amber also deceives herself with a teenage girl’s idea of romance. She knows as much about Tom as she does about the heartthrobs hanging on her bedroom walls. In a gushing confession about her crush, she says that she’d been watching him from afar for weeks before she’d ever spoken with him. But Tom is ambivalent about her. To begin with, he doesn’t know her very well and he’s not ready for or interested in a commitment. Before the night of the party, they went on an awkward first date to get ice cream. Part of the disconnect that occurs between them is Amber’s inexperience — she either ignores or doesn’t pick up on Tom’s mixed signals. She wants to be liked by the boy she’s set her sights upon without realizing that the hazy fantasy she’s imagined isn’t coming true.
Despite hearing both accounts of the night they spent together, Ziegler won’t confirm Tom’s guilt or deny Amber’s claim. She constructs this damning gray area where both kids — they’re not adults — are guilty of being young and foolish. Tom wants to have fun, to sleep with a lot of girls and he lets himself think that Amber’s on the same page. When she vomits first thing in the morning, it’s hard to believe, being so inebriated, that she gave her full consent before passing out. Or did she? Actually successfully presents the complications of adult sexuality. In this case, it’s a lose-lose dilemma with an uneasy resolution.
Actually, through May 5, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. $35-$70; 510-843-3822 or auroratheatre.org.