Rita, a working-class woman in her twenties from Liverpool, arrives at the office of Frank, a late middle-aged professor at a university. She is there to be tutored after having decided to return to school. Frank is on the phone with Julia, his younger, live-in girlfriend, saying he will be going by the pub after work but promises to be home later. He is mostly good-humored but rather weary and prone to mild bitterness and sarcasm.
Rita enters, loud and brash but charming. She points out a nude painting on the wall that Frank says he never looks at anymore, jokes with him, and states her opinions on various matters straightforwardly and without guile. Frank is amused and intrigued by her. He offers her a drink, and reveals his bottles hidden behind his books.
He asks her what she is there for and what she wants to learn, and she answers, “everything." He is surprised, and she talks on and on about how she is hungry to learn and is tired of the “ignorant masses” around her and of her job as a hairdresser where she has to listen to her customers talk of inconsequential things. She laughs that he needs a haircut but he insists he does not.
She starts asking him questions, such as what 'assonance' means. She tells him her name is actually Susan, but that she calls herself Rita after the author of her favorite book, Rubyfruit Jungle, which she presses him to read.
Rita also tells him how she wants to improve herself but that her husband Denny does not understand what she is trying to do. Frank agrees to teach her but is openly disillusioned with education and tells her once he is done that she should leave and not come back. He eventually tries to get rid of her but she tenaciously pursues him as her tutor.
Rita comes for her lessons. Frank has been drinking. He asks about her schools of her youth and she explains that people just argued and fought and never paid attention and anyone who wanted to learn did not fit in. She went along with everyone else but started to wonder recently if she was missing something.
Frank draws her attention to something she wrote on Rubyfruit Jungle, which he says is too subjective and has no real literary criticism in it. She has trouble with the concept of criticizing something she likes. She then says she read a Forster book Frank had mentioned in their first meeting but hated it because he said within the book that he did not like poor people. This incensed her, but Frank is amused and says she cannot look at the book in such a light.
Rita, often scatterbrained and prone to non-sequiturs, asks Frank if he is married. He says he was once but no longer, as he was a failed poet and his wife wanted to give him new fodder. This is perplexing to her.
As they continue to talk, Frank’s world-weariness is even more apparent. He says maybe he would not be so prone to disappearing from Julia if she was more like Rita. Rita laughs these comments off.
In Act III, Rita rushes in, apologizing for being late because of a talkative customer. Frank says it is no matter, as he wants to talk about an essay asking about the staging of Peer Gynt in which her response was simply to “do it on the radio." She admits it is short, and says Denny does not like her to work on essays at home.
For a bit they talk about culture, with Rita saying the working class has no culture, and Frank trying to say they do but through Rita’s probing questions coming to admit perhaps they do not.
The next time they meet, Frank is annoyed that Rita does not have her essay but eases up on her when she reveals Denny burnt all of her stuff because he was mad at her for not taking her birth control pill anymore and going back to school. Rita explains to Frank how Denny feels betrayed, and how he thinks they already have choices in their lives. She knows that they don’t, as having choices in television stations is not the same as real choices.
Frank tries to get her to talk more about this but she insists they need to return to studying. While discussing Chekov, Rita decides they must go to the theater, and convinces Frank to accompany her even though he is wary of what he deems “amateur” performances.
As time passes, Rita grows prouder of her interest in literary subjects and the theater. She brags of going to see a Shakespeare play.
One day Frank asks her to come to a dinner party Julia is giving; Rita agrees, but she does not show up. She later tells Frank Denny did not want to go and she felt nervous, underdressed, and that she had brought the wrong wine. Frank tries to tell her none of that matters and she only needed to be her charming self, but Rita becomes offended since it seems like he wanted her to be a “court jester."
At another meeting Rita comes in, upset, and says she and Denny split and she is going to live with her mother. She begs Frank to keep teaching her, and to change her; she does not want to give up. He tells her she is already fine, but reluctantly agrees to do as she wishes.
As time goes on, Rita becomes more and more like the other students. She gets a new flatmate, starts work at a bistro, and makes new friends with whom she travels and discusses literature; she also starts to speak properly. Frank, however, is drinking more. His troubles with Julia remain, and he is wary of the changes he sees in Rita.
One day Frank is incensed because the university suggested he take a sabbatical because of his drinking. Rita tries to be sympathetic, but Frank’s attitude and his negative comments on a paper of hers make her angry. She says he told her to be objective and to do her research and that she has done that; she claims he does not want her to have thoughts apart from his. Their fight fizzles when he says he read Rubyfruit Jungle and liked it, which makes her laugh.
Future meetings are few and far between because of Rita’s busy schedule. Frank is drinking more, and seems somewhat jealous of her new friends, especially a young man named Tyson. He and Rita are fighting more. He does, however, sign her up for her exam. After it is done she comes in and tells him that she wanted to write something snarky on it, but ended up answering legitimately. She tells him she is still learning about life and that he was a good teacher. Frank is cynical and depressed. He is getting ready to go to Australia; Julia is not going with him.
Rita pauses and then says she has something to give him. The play concludes with Rita sitting him down and taking out scissors to give him a haircut.