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Really Really Checks Into College-Age Ambition With Unlikable Characters

The setup:

Really Really is a college-age drama about the young and the ambitious, though some are more ambitious than others. Playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo reportedly wrote the play when he was 21 -- he is still under 30 -- and revised it for a 2012 production. It opened at the widely respected Signature Theatre in Arlington, and another production opened the same year at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Manhattan. Both productions were extended and are reported to have sold out.

The execution:

The split set is excellent, showing on one side the small house that Grace (Rachel Rubin) rents, and shares with Leigh (Teresa Zimmermann), and on the other the apartment that Cooper (Blake Weir) shares with Davis (Scott Gibbs). The other characters are Johnson (Dominique Champion), an African-American classmate and friend of Davis, Jimmy (James Monaghan), the boyfriend of Leigh, and, entering late, Leigh's sister Haley (Chelsea Sarratt), who comes to visit Leigh.

You might want to have a drink with them, but dinner would be a stretch, and living with them out-of-the-question. Playwright Colaizzo seems determined that you see them clearly, warts and all, and lays bare their faults, not with the scalpel of precision, but with the rough slash of a machete.

The play's intent is to illustrate how self-serving, untrustworthy, deceptive, lying sneaks this generation is, to which I would respond: Yes, but wasn't it ever thus? Having lived through the Gulf of Tonkin manipulation that got us into the Vietnam war, the CIA-created photographs of toy trucks that got us into Iraq, the collapse of U.S. financial institutions in 2008, and the billion dollar fines since then for financial frauds and deceptions, the older generation need not cast the first stone.

The characters are varied, and I liked some of them (the more fool, me) until the streak of yellow down their backs was exposed. Davis is admired by his friends for being a nice guy, and Gibbs conveys that admirably, but a vicious out-of-control side is revealed in an event late in the play - this reversal rivals Jekyll and Hyde, and is about as plausible. Gibbs is tall, and attractive, and it's easy to see why buddies would like him, and women be attracted to him.

He slept with Leigh, Jimmy's girlfriend, the previous evening, at a drunken party, but has had a blackout, and doesn't recall what happened. Leigh remembers, but is her version the truth? This is the central core of the play - I would normally say heart instead of core, but this play is no rom-com - there is no heart, just cold ambition coiled in the garments of pretense.

Weir as Cooper has an athletic body, shown to advantage is several shirtless scenes, and Cooper is refreshing in his admittance that he has a deal in which he can live on campus without going to any classes. He is compelled later to "choose sides" to keep this deal. Johnson likes video games, but is a peripheral character, just there to portray another example of self-serving ambition. Jimmy has a manipulative side, and seems too easily manipulated by Leigh for someone who seemingly has it all together.

All the male actors are excellent, and their characters similar, though Johnson's background is less affluent. The women are more varied. Chelsea Sarratt as Haley provides a high-energy, boisterous personality, the life of the party, and I quite liked her. Her visit to the male apartment is entertaining, but is also ludicrous and inexplicable.

Rachel Rubin as Grace has the hapless task of delivering lecture-monologues in seminars about "getting ahead" -- these are heavy-handed, too long, and unnecessary. Her character is underwritten, and her attraction to Leigh is referenced but not explored.

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Leigh is the enigma - though we are told her ambitions, we are not told her motivations, and we never really see her Machiavellian mind at work. She enters drunk, and the script compels her to give a largely dour performance. She is the fulcrum in the play, but she and director Jordan Jaffe have not found a way to make her fascinating.

Noel Coward downplayed his brilliance, saying it was simply "a talent to amuse". Colaizzo has that talent as well, and some of the early scenes are amusing, but he hasn't added the tight plotting that theater demands, or the plausible motivations that enhance our understanding of character. But he can do subtlety, as one scene between Jimmy and Cooper demonstrates. And his writing has inspired the gifted Black Lab Theatre to give him a superior production, well-cast, with a brilliant set, by Claire "Jac" Jones. The verdict;

A seriously flawed play is well-cast, with a polished production that provides considerable interest, though muddy motivations diminish our enjoyment.

Really Really continues through May 3, from Black Lab Theatre at Freneticore Theater, 5102 Navigation Blvd. For information or ticketing, call 713-515-4028 or contact www.blacklabtheatre.com

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