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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Thursday, February 09, 2012

Interview with Actress Bethany Anne Lind

Bethany Anne Lind at Signature Theatre
Bethany Anne Lind is an Atlanta-based actress who plays the role of “Leigh” in Signature Theatre’s world premiere production of Really Really.

When asked in an interview to describe Leigh, Lind demurs by looking toward playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo and saying, “I don’t know what I’m allowed to say.”

The producers of Really Really, it seems, are trying to keep a lid on what the play is really, really about, though rumors have circulated that it is loosely based on the 2006 Duke lacrosse incident. Colaizzo himself prefers to talk about the theme of the play rather than the plot, although he grants permission to Lind to “talk about who she is.”

Leigh, she finally says, is “a person who has grown up with nothing and always has had to fight to get where she is, as opposed to most of the other characters who have been handed their educations and their places in life. She has had to work and fight to get there, so she has a very clear goal of what she wants out of life and she is going to do whatever she has to do to get it.”

Lind herself seems unusually demure to play a hardscrabble role like that, but her own life story indicates a determination to achieve, even if it was generated in a more genteel environment.

Homeschooled in North Carolina, Lind started acting in church plays and in the living room and backyard.

“I did a lot of making up plays with my siblings and my cousins and my neighbors,” she said, and her parents “fostered a very creative atmosphere, so we were always pretending and making stuff up.”

Eventually, she went to college at Campbell University, a small, liberal-arts school.

After she graduated, Lind moved to Atlanta “and did a couple of educational shows and the little things you’ve got to do to start out” in the acting business. She chose Atlanta instead of New York or Los Angeles because she did not want to “get lost in the sea of billions of actors who are already there.”

In Atlanta, she “found a great theatre community and artistic home.” She has lived there for about five years, getting film and television work in Atlanta and traveling to New York “every now and then” to audition for shows like Really Really.

Among Lind’s credits on stage are August: Osage County and Steel Magnolias. On screen, she has been in Mean Girls 2 and the forthcoming films Flight and Crackerjack, and the TV series, Army Wives.

The way she won the role of Leigh (described to me elsewhere as “pivotal”) hinged on a local connection.

“I have extended family in Northern Virginia,” she said, “and I check the Equity web site frequently for auditions for things and had seen a call for this particular role. I didn’t really know anything about the play. I just saw a character description and thought, ‘that sounds interesting.’”

Since she was going to be in Northern Virginia for Thanksgiving, she sent an email to Really Really’s director, Matthew Gardiner, even though she didn’t know him, and asked if she could read for him.

Bethany Anne Lind with Paul Downs Colaizzo
Lind hadn’t heard from him but, just before she was to return to Atlanta, she “just emailed him one more time just to see, and he said, ‘We’re actually having auditions in New York on Monday. We can see you there if you can come.’”

So, Lind explained, “I took the bus up to New York, read the script on the way there, just loved it and auditioned -- and here I am.”

Colaizzo, who wrote the play, interjected to point out that the character of Leigh was transformed once he and Gardiner saw Lind audition.

“We may have thought we knew who the character of Leigh was, before Bethany came in to audition,” the playwright said, “but she also taught us who the character was, in an audition that was magnetic.”

That magnetism, he explained, “has transferred into her work in this play.”

Lind appreciates being part of a world premiere.

“It’s always fun working on it with the playwright in the room,” she said. “I feel like we inform each other on the character. It’s just exciting to be part of that part of the development of the play and the character.”

Performances of Really Really run through March 25, 2012. Show times are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm.

Tickets range from $56 - $80 and are available by calling Ticketmaster at 703-573-SEAT (7328) or visiting Student discount tickets are $30 and must be purchased the week of the performance. For more information please visit
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Interview with Playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo

Signature Theatre’s press release announcing its next production, Really Really, begins like this:

“An elite university. A not-to-be-missed party. A startling accusation.”

Rumors have circulated that Really Really is loosely based on the Duke lacrosse case of 2006, but playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo is reticent about the plot.

When posed what The Metro Herald characterized as “a basic question: What’s your play about?,” Colaizzo hesitates.

“That’s actually not a basic question,” he replies.

“That’s actually proved to be a very hard question,” he explains. “When people ask me these questions, I tend to answer thematically because that, to me, is what the play is about but usually that’s not what people are looking for.”

Playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo at Signature Theatre
The reticence – or intrigue, depending on how one looks at it – extends to members of the cast, as well. During an interview with actress Bethany Anne Lind, she responds to a question about her character, Leigh, by looking over to Colaizzo shyly and saying, “I don’t know what I’m allowed to say.”

The intrigue may be uncovered after Really Really has its official opening on February 12, but in the meantime we will have to remain satisfied with the thematic background information that the playwright is willing to discuss.

Really Really is Colaizzo’s first professionally produced play, at the age of 26. He found his inspiration for the play, he says, in what he calls the “post-abortion generation” of people born since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.

The post-abortion generation, he says, is “the most wanted generation in American history, because there was the option not to have us.”

The conscientious desire of that generation’s mothers and fathers to have offspring led to a lot of what is called helicopter parenting and the inculcation of self-esteem in children without regard to actual achievement or, as Colaizzo puts it, the idea that “everybody gets a trophy.” This, in turn, resulted in “an incredibly entitled and narcissistic generation that is sort of an anomaly in American life.”

Colaizzo describes “this period of time,” in which is own generation was brought up, as one that saw every child as “wanted and loved” and told that every one of them is “amazing, just for being them.”

When that generation reached young adulthood after being pampered during a period of economic abundance, they suddenly faced the economic crisis of 2008 and the recession and slowdown that followed. College graduates who expected a job immediately after graduation were sorely disappointed. Failure and the necessity to cope were new to them.

This situation, Colaizzo explained, led to a “divide” between those who really were resilient in the face of the challenge” of the economic downturn despite the “entitlement teachings” they grew up with, and “those who went the other way,” the ones “who live in their parents’ basements” and who accept the poor job market as a given and have given up looking for something better to do with their lives.

This is the background of Really Really but, Colaizzo asks rhetorically, “Will you see any of that in the play?” The answer is no.

The cast of Signature Theatre's 'Really Really'
The closest Colaizzo gets to describing what happens in his play is to say it “is about a rugby team. It takes place after a party on campus, the morning of the return from the party, and [during] the next two days that follow.”

In the course of the play, “the truth of what happened at the party comes into question. It becomes every man for himself,” in that “there’s suddenly a risk to each character’s future.”

The question is, Colaizzo concedes, “at what level will these characters and members of this generation go to protect [their futures] in an unpromising world [of] these days?”

In his own life, Colaizzo was born in Pittsburgh but his family moved around a lot as he was growing up. They lived in New Jersey and Florida and he went to high school in Georgia. When it was time for college, his parents moved to California while he went to New York University, where he studied drama.

After graduation with a BFA from the Tisch School of the Arts, he acted for two years but “wasn’t happy enough,” and that is when he “decided to switch my path to writing.”

His interest in “exploring social ideas in a dramatic way” was sparked by his encounter with Alan Ball’s work while he was in high-school. (Ball is the Oscar-winning screenwriter of American Beauty and creator of the TV series, Six Feet Under.)

Ball, he said, was writing about “the dark side of American life that wasn’t painted in this glittering-gold way that my conservative upbringing had led me to believe” was the normal way that people lived.

As a high-school student in Georgia, Colaizzo found that point of view “fascinating.”

That informs what Colaizzo enjoys about playwriting.

“My favorite thing about working on plays is,” he says, the way that he can “try to explore dichotomies in contemporary American life without pretension.”

He likes to hold “a mirror to the audience and say, What are you terrified of? What part did you relate to?”

He also likes to “explore unanswered questions or things that are a little scary to confront.”

Colaizzo compares his role as a playwright to that of a pet owner with a sick pet who needs medicine but refuses to swallow it.

“I call it the pill in the peanut butter,” he says, “because when you feed a dog a pill, you have to put it in peanut butter because the dog’s not stupid enough to just take the pill. So I have the pill that I really want to sell, but I have to put it in peanut butter,” so the audience will swallow it.

“The trickiest, and probably also the most fun part,” he explains, “is figuring out a way to explore these real human emotions and parts of our culture that are incredibly terrifying and put it in peanut butter so the audience can digest it and [be] willing to take it while also secretly getting the medicine.”

Colaizzo wrote the first draft of Really Really in 2007 and friends of his sent a copy to Matthew Gardiner, who is directing the production at Signature Theatre. In 2009, it had a reading as a work-in-progress at the Kennedy Center, where Gardiner saw it and recommended it to Signature’s founder and artistic director, Eric Schaeffer.

Schaeffer decided he wanted to produce the play but Colaizzo was skeptical. He asked, “Are you sure?” but, as Colaizzo reports it, Schaeffer replied: “Everyone is afraid of this play, and that’s why I want to do it.”

Colaizzo has nothing but praise for the way he has been treated at Signature. Schaeffer, Gardiner, and managing director Maggie Boland, he said, “have been so incredibly supportive,” urging him to make changes in the script only when the play demands them for artistic reasons and not simply to please audiences and make it more commercially acceptable.

He calls their attitude “unbelievably liberating” and “so I admire everything that they’ve done so far.”

Performances of Really Really run through March 25, 2012. Show times are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm.

Tickets range from $56 - $80 and are available by calling Ticketmaster at 703-573-SEAT (7328) or visiting Student discount tickets are $30 and must be purchased the week of the performance. For more information please visit

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