The white girl and the black guy are drawn with heavy shades of gray in Anna Ziegler’s tense two-character drama “Actually,” a 90-minute he said/she said about consent and campus rape. Add the fact that the 2017 script is being performed in the wake of one of the most fervently polarizing booze-fueled, school-age sexual assault accusations ever to play out on Capitol Hill, and you have a show that’s more of its moment than either Ziegler or Theater J bargained for.
Not that director Johanna Gruenhut promotes any association with recent headlines. The production is stark almost to a fault, with Sylvia Kates and Jaysen Wright looking unbearably young as they sit at college desks — the kind with an arm rest for taking notes — on the otherwise empty stage.
As it empathetically pries open the heads and hearts of its two fragile characters, Ziegler’s play powerfully indicts university culture even at elite campuses. The story is set at Princeton, where Amber and Tom describe being so saturated in booze and overwhelmed by assignments and loneliness that the tacitly accepted bacchanalian pressure-cooker atmosphere is inevitably part of the tragedy.
The voices of these two ring true as they swap testimonies directly to us and sometimes act out what happened one drunken night. The way Kates and Wright play Amber and Tom in Theater J’s production, you want to reach out and protect these freshmen as they reveal themselves to be mixed-up jangles of contradictions.
Theater J is performing around town this season as the Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center is being renovated, so “Actually” is being produced at Arena Stage’s 200-seat Kogod Cradle. The show takes its title from something Amber says that’s neither yes nor no, and the open forum quality of the Cradle is apt for Ziegler’s scrutiny of Title IX, the 1972 civil rights law dealing with equal protection for women on college campuses. The Obama and Trump administrations provided different guidelines for how sexual assault cases should be adjudicated under Title IX, and the glimpses of the process Ziegler provides are unnerving.
Again, that’s just part of the picture as Ziegler balances her analysis of flawed systems with her portraiture of two human beings trying to grow up. Amber is anxious, a fast talker, bright and insecure, played with a beaming smile by Kates. Tom is smooth and opportunistic, a pianist, a mother’s boy and, with deliberate dissonance, a dedicated wolf. He is not easy to judge, especially as embodied by the athletically built, soft-spoken Wright.
Paul Downs Colaizzo’s controversial “Really Really” played similar campus rape material for shock value at Signature Theatre in 2012, but Ziegler is more openhearted with her characters and more intellectually curious. Ziegler carefully maps her intersections of gender and race; Amber and Tom both say naive things on that score. (They’re at college to learn, right?) The pivotal issue, of course, is consent, and while Ziegler builds a layered scenario and listens zealously to both characters, it doesn’t shortchange Tom or spoil the interest to say that eventually it’s Amber whose voice rings like a church bell.
The challenge of staging the play is how to let these two keep testifying without making the show static or stagy, and Gruenhut errs on the bland side for a long patch in the middle, as Amber and Tom don’t do much but talk in place, explaining themselves. The acting is warm and intelligent, though, and both Kates and Wright make their characters utterly cogent and difficult to dismiss. You don’t watch this like it’s “Law and Order,” searching legalistically for clues of innocence or guilt. It’s also different from Paula Vogel’s subtle anatomy of a predator “How I Learned to Drive” now at Round House Theatre.
Ziegler positions the story precisely, as the show’s arresting final image makes clear. With a sober eye, it effectively questions a lot of dangerous lessons that young adults absorb about body image, sex, drinking, consent and responsibility, even in the ranks of higher education.
Actually, by Anna Ziegler. Directed by Johanna Gruenhut. Scenic and lighting design, Jesse Belsky; costumes, Sarah Cubbage; sound design, Evan Cook. Through Nov. 18 at Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle, 1101 Sixth St. SW. $34-$64. 202-777-3210 or theaterj.org.