Monday, February 13, 2012

Ambiguity Reigns in Signature Theatre’s New Play, 'Really Really'

When Haley, the sister of the protagonist in Signature Theatre’s new drama, Really Really, first arrives at the beginning of the second act, it’s as if a window has been opened to allow fresh air to blow across the stage.

No: A more accurate analogy is that a cork has been popped on a bottle of soda that was all shook up, because Haley, plainspoken to the point of being (really, really) offensive, stands in stark contrast to the other characters, who are each tightly wound and waspish, even the ostensible slacker of the group. Haley relieves the pressure that has been building for the first hour.

Even the names of the guys on the rugby team suggest old-moneyed uptightness. Cooper (Evan Casey), Davis (Jake Odmark), and Johnson (Paul James) are either surnames, or last names used as first names, but in any case seem to be WASP-y prep-school holdovers. Only Leigh’s boyfriend, Jimmy (Danny Gavigan), has an unmistakable first name. (Suffice it to say that Grace [Lauren Culpepper] turns out to lack it.)

After Haley (played by Kim Rosen) blows in, we find it hard to believe that she and Leigh (Bethany Anne Lind) are sisters. Despite Haley’s claims to the contrary, the two look nothing alike: Haley dark and buxom, Leigh willowy and flaxen.

Neither, it seems, do they have much in common in terms of character traits. Leigh, we gather, is a diligently studious college student who has distanced herself from a dysfunctional and poor family, while Haley embraces the trailer-trash lifestyle. (She’s living, she says, in a Super 8 motel outside Waterbury, Connecticut, with a guy named “Rico” and all that implies.)

Bethany Anne Lind (Photo: Scott Suchman)
Leigh prefers to keep tight control over her circumstances while sister Haley likes to snoop around and interfere, as long as her own aims can be advanced in the process.

As events unfold, however, we find that the two are not so different as they wish to appear.

Haley’s cubic zirconium entrance into a diamond-studded, ivy-covered world breathes life into the story, which up to that point has been merely a conventional he said/she said exposition of the two sides of a story about what might or might not have been a date rape at an off-campus party.

By coincidence, Really Really, written by first-time playwright and New York University graduate Paul Downs Colaizzo, had its premiere in the same week that New York University law professor Richard Epstein wrote about how the U.S. Department of Education has issued rules that skew the due process rights of college students accused of sexual assault.

Writing in reference to the recent case of Yale University football star Patrick Witt, who seems to have withdrawn from consideration for a Rhodes Scholarship because of anonymous accusations of sexual assault, Epstein notes of recent rules promulgated by the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education:

“The entire matter is shrouded in secrecy; the internal investigation cannot be postponed until the criminal charges, if any, are resolved; and the question of proof of guilt or innocence should be decided by the ‘preponderance of evidence’ standard. That standard puts a far lower burden on the complainant than the 'beyond a reasonable doubt' standard used in criminal cases or the 'clear and convincing evidence' standard used in many legal disputes (including defamation cases brought against the press by public officials) where some important constitutional right is at stake.”

Considering that the playwright began the first draft of Really Really in 2007, it is mere coincidence that the world premiere occurred even as the very real topic of sexual assault on campus, and the presence or absence of due process for the accused, was in the headlines. It means that Really Really is not just an entertaining and provocative dramatic work, but also a cultural artifact of contemporary relevance.

Jake Odmark, Evan Casey. Photo: Scott Suchman.
Comparisons of Colaizzo’s new play will be made with John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, David Mamet’s Oleanna, and Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning Into Butter. Each comparison is apt, though, despite some similarities in subject matter and stylistics, there is no direct parallel for any of them with Really Really.  What they all have in common is an ambiguous answer to the question, Who is guilty?

Colaizzo, 26 years old, has a sharp ear and a knack for writing dialogue. He recognizes, and hence expresses, how 20-somethings in 2012 actually talk. While each of his characters starts off superficially as little more than party boys (and girls) with few distinguishing characteristics, by the final tableau we realize that each of them is siloed into his or her own, distinct personality – for better or for worse.

It’s difficult to describe what happens in Really Really because so much turns on what we learn in the last ten or so minutes of the play. To reveal too many details of the plot would be like telling a friend that Haley Joel Osment sees dead people and that’s why he can see Bruce Willis.

Suffice it to say that, within a running time of two hours, Colaizzo stuffs his play with highly charged accusations of sexual assault (already noted), class warfare, sibling rivalry, manipulative behavior, homophobic banter, unrequited lesbian lust, drunkenness, hangovers, and the potential for McCarthy-like guilt by association. It’s enough to fill a full day of Lifetime movies.

Director Matthew Gardiner keeps the action at a steady pace and he is ably served by a set, designed by Misha Kachman, divided into two living rooms that represent feminine order and masculine chaos.

There is nothing black or white about Really Really. It thrives on shades of grey and is built on uncertainty.

Audiences will find plenty to talk about during the ride home from the theatre, and there is enough disagreement on offer that couples may find themselves not talking about it at the breakfast table the next morning.

Performances of Really Really continue through March 25 in the ARK at Signature Theatre, with show times at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8:00 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, and Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00 p.m. Ticket prices range from $56 to $80 and are available by calling Ticketmaster at 703-573-7328 or visiting

Really Really contains strong language and explicit situations and is recommended for mature audiences.

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