We all know that “No” means “No,” but what’s a college student to think and do when the young woman with whom he thinks he’s having consensual, albeit drunken sex tells him “Actually, um…” mid-coitus?

Anna Ziegler takes this question as her point of departure in Actually, the New York playwright’s darkly comedic, compellingly dramatic look at sex, race, gender, and booze now getting a first-class co-World Premiere* production at the Geffen.

A college party kiss between Princeton freshmen Thomas Anthony (Jerry MacKinnon), African-American, and Amber Cohen (Samantha Ressler), Jewish-American, sets things in motion, that and a “Two Truths And A Lie” game that ultimately leads to Anthony-Cohen, the He Said-She Said sexual misconduct hearing on which our two protagonists’ future lives depend.

Ping-ponging back and forth between present and recent past, playwright Ziegler structures Actually as a series of revelations made directly to the audience, a classic case of different versions of the same truth that asks Tom and Amber’s listeners to decide for themselves whether what went on in Tom’s dorm room was rape, or as Amber puts it, something that “might have maybe constituted something approaching sex without my one-hundred-percent consent,” or as Anthony insists, consensual.

Along the way we meet Leslie, the no-nonsense school official in charge of Anthony-Cohen; Tom’s roommate Jason, African-American of course, because Princeton is nothing less than thoughtful; and Sunil, the “Indian Channing Tatum” who quickly becomes Tom’s best friend ever.

 We also discover Tom and Amber’s night-and-day different family backgrounds (hers privileged, his not-so), sexual histories (his prolific, hers not so), and ultimately what each has to say about the night in question, memories clouded by alcohol consumed to the point of inebriation.

 If there’s any play around town likely to inflame passionate discussion of the issues it raises, Actually is that play, and not merely questions of Tom’s guilt or innocence, which by the way will depend on whose version of the truth an “impartial panel” finds more credible. (When Tom asks how much more credible, Leslie’s response is “fifty percent plus a feather.”)

There’s also the question of how much race and gender will play into the panel’s decision, and whether we might not have gone too far when “affirmative consent” is needed every step of the way for sex to be considered consensual, not just not a volunteered “No” or the titular four syllables that Amber told Tom when “he got a tiny bit rough” with her.

In addition, Actually makes it abundantly clear how little we can ever know about what’s going on in someone else’s mind, since only Tom and Amber themselves can say what was in their heads that night at the party or the events that might have contributed to what ended up happening in Tom’s dorm room.

Actually does feel at times like a pair flip-flopping solo shows, giving MacKinnon and Ressler far more chance to act than react, though since school regulations do in fact deny Tom and Amber the opportunity for a face-to-face heart-to-heart, Ziegler’s dueling monolog format, while not entirely satisfying, makes sense.

Director Tyne Rafaeli keeps things riveting throughout, and if a sense of authentic teenage vulnerability may get lost with actors very clearly not eighteen years of age, MacKinnon and Ressler give undeniably electrifying performances, alternately sympathetic and repellent, and always achingly human.

Scenic designer Tim Mackabee’s blond-wood rectangular box of a set, empty but for two straight-back chairs gives the production an appropriately in-limbo look made even more striking by Lap Chi Chu’s stunning lighting design (Tom and Amber’s reversed shadows at one pivotal moment deserve particular mention) and by sound designer Vincent Olivieri’s dramatic musical underscoring, a production design completed by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward’s pair of just-right costumes.

Amy Levinson is dramaturg. Elizabeth A. Brohm is stage manager. Casting is by Phyllis Schuringa, CSA.

Edgy, thought-and-laugh-provoking, and never less than absorbing, Actually is as button-pushing a play as you’re likely to see all year. Be prepared to talk back.

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Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.

–Steven Stanley
May 11, 2017
Photos: Chris Whitaker

*Actually is a co-World Premiere between Geffen Playhouse and Williamstown Theatre Festival, whose August production will feature its own director and cast.

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