This is a common problem — and, I admit, a pleasure — of procedurals. Here, we’re thrown into it right from the start, as Amber and Tom, already wasted, kiss outside a kegger. At first, Ms. Ziegler gives us every reason to believe that Amber is not only willing to have sex but is also the aggressor. She tells Tom that he should play her game of Two Truths and a Lie “if you wanna sleep with me tonight.” (He does.) Later, while dancing with him, she shocks even herself by stripping off her tank top.
Put aside for a moment the obvious proviso that how a woman flirts or dresses does not entitle a man to rape her. Ms. Ziegler is not arguing that point. Rather, she paints Amber as unequivocally thrilled by the possibility of sleeping with Tom, not least because she sees herself as a mousy Jewish woman with body issues, and him as a bluff black man without them. Nor does Ms. Ziegler argue that Amber’s cluelessness — she suggests that Tom’s race was “a great way” to get into a good school — provokes him. On the contrary, he finds her “macro-aggressions” strangely adorable.
So what is Ms. Ziegler doing by frontloading poor Amber with so many irritating traits? And why does she likewise give Tom, at first, only the sympathetic ones of a disappeared father, a brave mother, a gay Indian buddy and a love of Bartok?
The answer is not what I expected. If the play seems to question the axiom that we must always believe a woman who charges rape, it’s not to undermine an orthodoxy but merely to maintain suspense. Soon enough, the pendulum swings the other way, and it’s time to backload Tom with incriminating traits. He can be impulsive, cavalier. He enjoys playing the field.
I won’t say more about how Ms. Ziegler’s helix of innuendoes and mitigations unwinds because (a) that would spoil her surprises; and (b) even after reading the script, I’m not sure I’ve figured it out. The denouement doesn’t so much untie a knot as start a bunch of new ones.
Perhaps that’s as it should be; from a philosophical perspective, who are we to know the truth?
But from a dramaturgical perspective, the play’s slipperiness causes problems. Lileana Blain-Cruz’s high-gloss minimalist production — that lawn, by Adam Rigg, is beautifully lit by Yi Zhao — makes a great deal of sense moment by moment but cannot seem to accrete meaning and value as the story keeps lurching around.
And the actors, called upon to switch gears constantly, have a similar problem maintaining credible characters. As Tom, Joshua Boone keeps enough in reserve to smooth over the role’s inconsistencies, but Alexandra Socha, as the more voluble Amber, is stuck making hairpin turns on unmarked roads. To say she doesn’t crash is high praise.
Or perhaps I am missing the point. As a writer who likes repurposing genre — her play “The Last Match,” currently at the Roundabout, is a tennis tale about mortality — Ms. Ziegler may not be interested in whether meaningful, affirmative consent was given or even possible under the circumstances described in “Actually.” And so even though the quasi-legal drama starts with a mystery and ends with a hearing, she doesn’t choose to answer the question, or she answers it so unclearly that she might as well not have.
If that’s a dodge either way, I can’t deny that it forces you to engage a larger, sadder issue. To comply with Title IX regulations, colleges are now becoming mini-police states with their own multimillion-dollar justice systems. But the burden of proof in a sexual assault case is far lower on campus than it would be elsewhere, requiring only a “preponderance of evidence” to decide guilt — or “50 percent plus a feather,” as Ms. Ziegler memorably puts it.
No wonder she stacks the deck so carefully: She wants us to feel what it’s like to live at that terrible crux. “Actually” is not, after all, a play about rape. It’s a play about the failure of justice when it deals with unknowable midpoints instead of obvious extremes. Amber and Tom are changed forever by events they can hardly recall, let alone judge. So how can anyone judge them?