At one point in Joe Calarco’s bold, bustling new play “Separate Rooms,” a character named Simon describes the awakening of his passion for archaeology. Now a graduate student in the field — he pays his bills by working as a doorman — Simon traces his interest back to a fifth-grade social studies assignment: to invent a civilization and create the physical artifacts it might leave behind. Simon remembers “grabbing wood, nail, glass, shells, rocks, paint, whatever we could find,” and even using his own blood to craft his relics.
A comparable feat of ample invention has gone into “Separate Rooms,” a funny slice-of-life-and-death drama whose trove of ranting, bickering, affectionate characters come complete with quirks, idiosyncratic ideas and fleshed-out backstories. The play is making its world premiere in a 4615 Theatre Company staging in which first-rate acting largely makes up for the two-bit production values and lack of sleek transitions. Jordan Friend directs the show, running at Silver Spring’s Highwood Theatre.
The action takes place primarily in a New York City apartment after a memorial service. A young man named Him (Alex Mills) has died, leaving his partner Josh (an achingly fragile-looking Stephen Russell Murray) on the verge of collapse. As family and friends rally round, attractions and resentments flare up until an astonishing crisis explodes. Meanwhile, the dead man looks on — the persuasive Mills radiates apt bemusement — supplying commentary that helps the play ask two big questions: What makes a life worthwhile? And can happiness compensate for associated pain?
Among the most compelling sections of the play are the monologues by Simon (the terrific Reginald Richard), who unleashes an entertaining diatribe about Pringles. Also memorable is Anna (a spot-on Jen Rabbitt Ring), a nonprofit executive so self-absorbed that she believes a minor fib she has told, about a cadged cigarette, will provoke a humanitarian disaster.
And then there’s the history-obsessed Frank (Vince Eisenson), who references Mussolini, Caligula and several fashion designers during an animated riff about the lingering aftermath of historical trauma.
The nine characters interact in various parts of the apartment, in sequences that sometimes move forward and backward in time by minutes or more, showing us the gathering from different perspectives. To establish this conceit, the actors frequently reconfigure the furniture and perfunctory wall units that constitute the set — an unwieldy process. That’s not the only transition-related flaw: Some of the smaller time shifts are unclear, although the vagueness does not hamper the storytelling.
The time-and-space gimmicks are not really essential to the world that Calarco (who also wrote “Shakespeare’s R&J” and is resident director at Signature Theatre) has created here. “Separate Rooms” conjures its own complete, restless civilization. And engaging with it does not require an archaeological dig.
Separate Rooms, by Joe Calarco. Direction and sound design by Jordan Friend. Scenic design, Jennifer Hiyama; costumes, Jeannette Christensen; lighting, Katie McCreary; assistant lighting designer, Hailey Laroe; fight choreographer, Matthew Castleman. With Jacob Yeh, Alani Kravitz, Melissa Carter and Jenna Berk. 95 minutes. Tickets: $16.50. Produced by 4615 Theatre Company at the Highwood Theatre, 914 Silver Spring Ave., Silver Spring, Md. 4615theatre.com