This may be the first time you’re hearing of Paul Downs Colaizzo, but on the evidence of his crackling new play, “Really Really,” the name bears committing to memory. A sexually charged comedy-drama about self-serving collegians of a coldly calculating variety, “Really Really” sucks you in with its brio and caustic wit and holds you with its teasingly clever double-edged plot.
The crafty Colaizzo manages to stay one step ahead of his audience in this tautly directed, scrumptiously acted world premiere at Signature Theatre. He’s administering his own peculiar Rorschach test here, challenging you to apply your own values and ingrained assumptions to a murky incidence of he said/she said. Or rather: She said, and he was too drunk to remember.
As shepherded by Signature’s artistic second-in-command, Matthew Gardiner — who hereby submits his credentials for entry to the first-class cabin of Washington directors — “Really Really” is the sharpest original play the Arlington company has offered up in years. Granted, this has not been Signature’s strongest suit. Still, the confident wit and topical vitality of “Really Really” assuredly propels Signature into the thick of the region’s hunt for new plays of provocation and style.
The 26-year-old Colaizzo wags a scandalized finger at his own generation in “Really Really,” and cries “shame.” While quiet moments are interlaced deftly with the rat-a-tat dialogue in this character-rich environment, there are no tender ones. Colaizzo’s young people — all students, save one, at some American university or other specializing in course work and material comfort — practice what Colaizzo sees as the sorry singleminded preoccupation of the age: looking out ruthlessly for Number One.
He telegraphs this judgment a bit too forcefully in a speech apportioned to one of the students, addressing one of those gatherings of college kids so motivated they’ve got their next 30 years all mapped out on PowerPoint. Her peers, she avers with a mix of self-deprecation and pride, are part of “Generation ‘Me,’ a generation of self-awareness and self-concern.” A group, she adds, that stresses the “I” in iPhone. The speech steps outside the plot to tsk-tsk for us unnecessarily. And yet, as uttered with a shading of irony by the terrific Lauren Culpepper, it’s comically effective, revealing at once the precocity and the insecurities of a pragmatic if entitled age group.
The ugly echo of a key line in her speech — “What can I do to get what I want?” — haunts the rest of the play. Culpepper’s Grace is off-campus roommates with Leigh (Bethany Anne Lind, in a performance of marvelous, if intentionally enigmatic, control). As the play opens, they’re returning to the apartment, exhilarated and inebriated, from what appears to have been an epic kegger. Gardiner’s experience as a choreographer pays off here, for the wordless scene is a sublimely orchestrated exhibition of the giddy wearing-off of hormones and booze.
It’s a galvanizing prologue for the unfolding of a story that is in part about what had happened that debauched night in the party apartment, belonging to bombastic Cooper (Evan Casey) and the seemingly more sensitive Davis (Jake Odmark), teammates on the college rugby team. In counterpoint to the dumb show with Grace and Leigh, the initial encounter with Cooper, Davis and their video-game-playing buddy Johnson (a fine Paul James) is a session of aggressively profane wordplay, during which women — as in the bad-mannered comedies of Neil LaBute — are discussed in language best suited to 12th-century Mongol marauders.
As exemplified by Casey and Odmark, the actors all slip into their roles with such command that in the close quarters of Signature’s smaller space, the Ark, you feel as if you’ve matriculated along with them at Sociopathic U. Confronted the next day by her creepily protective boyfriend, Jimmy, a rugby player who missed the party (and is played by the superb Danny Gavigan), Leigh tearfully confesses to having had sex with Davis—but not with her consent.
The circumstances might sound as if a producer from Lifetime greenlighted Colaizzo’s project. But “Really Really” is far more tricky and twisty: in every purported bit of evidence, it seems, there is the possibility of utter fabrication or, at least, an alternative explanation. For Leigh shows herself to be the kind of unreliable victim who would send Mariska Hargitay into SVU group therapy. The notion of facts and lies bizarrely converging is underlined when Leigh’s visiting amoral sister, Haley — assayed by yet another stellar player, Kim Rosen — concocts a story to get into Cooper and Davis’s apartment, and receives a gift of corroboration from the universe.
Informing all of the machinations are the characters’ keen perceptions of their relative class and social status. Loyalty to friends is a far less important consideration here than what an association with a scandal might mean to their future well-being. In making Leigh poor and grasping — and both Davis and Jimmy rich — the dramatist means to ramp up suspicion of the young woman’s tale. (Another cruel deception perpetrated by Leigh at Jimmy’s expense further erodes her veracity.) And as the ramifications of Leigh’s accusations become clearer to Davis’s friends, the manner in which Casey’s Cooper and James’s Johnson run for cover exposes the abject cravenness of Colaizzo’s “Me” people.
Misha Kachman’s dual-apartments set neatly divides the action; the props are smartly employed, down to Leigh’s ownership of an outdated model of cellphone. The mall-label outfits in which costume designer Kathleen Geldard dresses the cast are a match for the big-box store furnishings, and lighting designer Colin K. Bills assists at meticulously defining multiple locations in a confined space.
“Really Really” has little reassuring to say about young people and their aspirations. It suggests that they feel they have been given license to act in the least honorable ways possible. (If this is the case, then their elders have something to answer for, too.) Some playgoers may come away feeling that Colaizzo is far too harsh a judge. Few, though, may want to argue with an affirmative verdict on the playwright and this sterling production.
by Paul Downs Colaizzo. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Sound, Matt Rowe; fight director, Casey Kaleba. About 2 hours. Through March 25 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Call 703-573-7328 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.