Michael A. Curry and Ella Dershowitz in Anna Ziegler’s Actually, directed by Tracy Ward, at the Aurora in downtown Berkeley. Photo: David Allen

Early in their freshman year at Princeton, two students, overflowing with alcohol and bravado meet and have sex. But is it actually consensual? This is the ostensible question behind award-winning playwright Anna Ziegler’s taut and thoughtful exploration into the angst of the beginning days of college, as students struggle to discover who they are, who they want to be, and who they should befriend and trust.

In this articulate and insightful 90-minute one-act production, we watch Amber Cohen (Ella Dershowitz), a shy Jewish girl with body issues from an intellectual family and Tom Anthony (Michael A. Curry), a handsome and confident Black pianist from a single-parent working-class background, as they participate in a campus hearing convened by faculty and administrative personnel to adjudicate the question of sexual assault. Skillfully directed by Tracy Ward, most of what we learn about Amber and Tom is by their breaking the fourth wall and talking candidly to the audience about themselves, their backgrounds and what they remember about that hazy night, as they go through the harrowing inquiry.

The two meet without much knowledge or thought to their very different circumstances and expectations. Tom has had his pick of sexual encounters whereas Amber’s limited experiences have been negative. Yet, Amber’s need to fit in, her roommate’s prodding about finding a boyfriend, and her attraction to Tom bring out the drunken flirt in her. She tells Tom that he should play her game of Two Truths and a Lie “if you wanna sleep with me tonight.” Later, while dancing, Amber strips off her tank top, much to her own and Tom’s surprise. But did she later consent to sex or did she say, “Actually …”?

Unlike in a criminal trial, the burden of proof in a college sexual assault case requires only a “preponderance of evidence” to decide guilt, or “50 percent plus a feather,” as playwright Anna Ziegler so nicely phrases it. She should know, since, in addition to her own knowledge and research, her lawyer husband oversaw sexual misconduct cases at NYU. Her interest in writing Actually is “… in trying to come up with a situation that would make the audience question themselves and their unconscious biases … to figure out what went into a moment between two people.”

No, there won’t be any spoilers here about the outcome of the hearing. And in fact, the conclusion of the inquiry is not a significant aspect in the play. Instead, Actually presents a perceptive analysis of character, class, race, and gender, and the often painful process of sexual growth and maturity.

The two actors deserve kudos for their nuanced and compelling portrayals in Actually. We find our sympathies shifting between Amber and Tom throughout their performances. Ella Dershowitz is new to East Bay theater, although she has many credits elsewhere. Michael A. Curry has appeared locally in Topdog/Underdog and black odyssey. Set Designer Giulio Perrone, Costume Designer Ulises Alcala, Lighting Designer Jim Cave, and Sound Designer James Ard have made the most of Aurora’s intimate upstairs theater, Harry’s Upstage.

Actually is playing the Aurora Theatre’s small venue, Harry’s Upstage, through May 5. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit the Aurora Theatre online.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...