As portrayed by MacKinnon, Tom is an attractive guy who scores lots of casual sex but is otherwise not especially worldly or predatory. Instead, he’s a lower-middle-class African-American kid who plays classical piano and has painstakingly made his way into the Ivy League. But now his future is threatened; a female freshman, a Jewish coed named Amber (Samantha Ressler), has accused him of rape, and he’s been called upon to face a three-person panel who will determine how much truth her statement holds. If her word is taken over his, Tom’s future may be toast.
To Tom, his predicament is bewildering; he’d been under the impression that Amber liked him and wanted to be intimate, moreover, he’d liked her as well, despite her awkward manner and sometimes tactless remarks, such as assuming he got into Princeton because he was black. In fact, to the audience observer, the hookup between these two young folks, despite its maladroitness, might even have the makings of a relationship, were circumstances different.
Unfortunately for Tom, the current circumstances include his having misread this latest conquest, an insecure woman who confesses to us her apprehensions about sex in general, and reveals that her drinking and partying are less a natural predilection than a response to pressure from her more sophisticated friend Heather (who gifts Amber with her own personal flask). Moreover, her hours of practice on the university squash team in tandem with her bar activities preclude any time for study, another thing that makes her nervous and uncomfortable in these first months away from home.
But one thing she knows for sure is that she’s attracted to Tom. And she feels very bad to see him “alone” and without support, answering the questions of the prying panel.
This network of psychological nuance and the abundant detail Ziegler adds to her back story makes for a top-notch narrative that travels beyond the hot-button issue of date rape it tackles. The characters, Amber especially, are as finely etched as in a good novel, and as satisfying. Under Tyne Rafaeli’s direction, Ressler’s portrayal conjures a confused and maddeningly myopic young woman you alternately want to shake for her waffling ambivalence (she never actually says “no”) and comfort for her overwhelming anxiety. MacKinnon starts out a bit too much of a cypher but his performance visibly deepens as the web tightens around his character.
Designer Tim Mackabee’s set resembles a textured wooden box that lighting designer Lap Chi Chu floods at certain junctures with varying hues of light. Pretty in places, I found it static, and wished for more lighting to be focused on the performers, when they rose from their seats, or when the story changed or shifted from past to present. By contrast, Vincent Olivieri sound design added notably to an uneasy ambience.
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