Williamstown Theatre Festival: 'Let's have this discussion'

WILLIAMSTOWN — Early on in "Actually," Amber, who is white, suggests that being black has helped the object of her affection, Tom, get into Princeton University.

"Um. You know you can't say that. Right?" Tom responds.

Amber doesn't back down, beginning an unapologetic meditation on the college admissions process that culminates in her saying, "We all fill some stupid niche, which reduces us to something much less than what we are, but that's the way it goes."

Such meditations rule Anna Ziegler's script and raise questions about why "that's the way it goes." While some plays limit their scope to one or two social issues and bury them in metaphor, Ziegler explicitly addresses issues of race, gender, class and sexual assault in this two-hander, which began performances on Wednesday, Aug. 9, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival's Nikos Stage. Lileana Blain-Cruz, a rising directorial star who received an Obie Award for her work on "The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead," was tabbed to lead this production. The festival is billing it as a "co-world premiere" following a separate production this spring at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

"I was, one, just kind of really interested in the subject matter," Blain-Cruz said during an interview with actors Alexandra Socha (Amber) and Joshua Boone (Tom) in Williamstown, "but also kind of formally. It's a really interesting two-hander in the sense that it feels almost like two one-person plays colliding."

The play opens with Amber and Tom, both freshmen, drinking at a Princeton party. While both characters are romantically interested in one another, a cocktail of circumstances, steadily poured throughout the play, complicates the decisions they later make that night (no spoilers here, but you can guess). Blain-Cruz, who attended Princeton, said this scene — and the situations that arise from it — is common to almost all colleges. "You come in, and you have a lot of pressure to succeed in that place, but then there's also this big pressure to kind of party and to drink," Blain-Cruz said.

Following a two-truths-and-a-lie session that clearly addresses one of the work's central themes, Amber and Tom turn to the audience, gradually explaining the consequences of their actions that night by digging into their pasts. Ziegler makes these explorations distinctly current by interspersing references to Snapchat, Justin Bieber and blogging throughout.

The staging is simple — two chairs facing the audience with a wood panel behind them — in order to put each character's story under the microscope. For Boone, who was cast in the festival's "Where Storms Are Born" production, Tom's confident but private personality — as well as his experience dealing with assumptions made about being black — strongly resonated with him.

"We're both kind of lock-and-key guys. We don't really like to share certain things, but there are moments where [the] situation necessitates that we do say, `This is what happened to me in my life.' And this is one of those instances," he said.

Socha, on the other hand, doesn't feel a strong personal connection to Amber's character, at least in part because she didn't attend college. "This doesn't really seem that fun," Socha said of her experiences attending college parties with friends.

Unlike Tom, Amber overpowers her personal issues by oversharing, revealing insecurities about her appearance and her relationships with friends and family alike, among other things. "She's in search of a true connection," Socha said.

Socha performed a reading of Ziegler's script at Williamstown last summer while shooting "Red Oaks," a television series. She had to audition when Blain-Cruz was later named director. "You feel some sort of claim to it already," Socha said of having done the reading before auditioning. She quickly developed a strong rapport with Boone, allowing them to continue working on a play Socha says forces audience members to challenge assumptions they may initially make about the characters.

"You can't put every woman or every black man into one little box," she said.

Blain-Cruz agrees, noting that the play's structure facilitates this mental exercise. "Thinking about the time that we live in now, where conversation is so fragmented and broken up, to [have] two long-form conversations with these two very specific characters was very exciting," the director said.

"Let's have this discussion," Boone said.

If you go ...

What: Williamstown Theatre Festival's "Actually"

When: On stage now through Aug. 20

Where: Nikos Stage, 1000 Main St., Williamstown, Mass.

Information: wtfestival.org, 413-458-3253


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