February 2, 2011

"Gruesome Playground Injuries" is Sometimes Touching—But in the End, is Only Skin Deep

What a year Rajiv Joseph is having.  His play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo has been hailed as a brilliant meditation on the Iraq War, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist last spring and will debut on Broadway next month with Robin Williams in the title role. A couple of weeks before that, another Joseph play, The North Pool, will gets its world premiere at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, Calif. Meanwhile, the Alley Theatre in Houston is planning the world premiere of yet another Joseph work, The Monster at the Door, for later in the spring. 

So you can understand why my theatergoing buddy Bill and I jumped at the chance to see Gruesome Playground Injuries, the Joseph play that opened at Second Stage Theatre on Monday night.  And it wasn't hard to see what the fuss is all about.  

Joseph, who is 36, has a distinctive voice that is contemporary without being self-consciously hip, provocative (and sometimes political) without being pedantic. His mixed-race background (his dad is Indian) makes him part of the new generation of playwrights who are bringing much-needed diversity and energy to the American theater (click here to see Joseph and four others in a terrific panel discussion recently hosted by the American Theatre Wing’s executive director Howard Sherman). Plus—not that it should matter—Joseph is as cute as all get out.

But I’m more ambivalent about Gruesome Playground Injuries. It’s a two-hander that uses short scenes to track the 30-year relationship of a couple, Kayleen and Doug, who meet when they’re eight. It’s a smart play and a sometimes affecting one but parts of it seem too contrived. For example, the story isn’t told chronologically but at moments jumps ahead 15 years and then back 10, which seems done just for the sake of keeping the audience (part of which, for another unknown reason, is seated at the back of the stage) guessing about which time period will come next.

Still, in many ways Gruesome Playground Injuries reminds me of one of my favorite plays, A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, which also starts with the childhood meeting of a boy and girl and then follows their relationship over 50 years. Joseph’s Kayleen and Doug aren’t upper-class WASPs as were the couple in Love Letters and their story unspools over a shorter period of time.  But the biggest difference is that while Love Letters records the pain of the passage of time in the notes, cards and letters that couple exchanged, Gruesome Playground Injuries marks the years in the wounds that Kayleen and Doug endure.

Doug’s are visible—from a cut forehead in grade school to more severe and, well, gruesome damages as the play moves on. Kayleen’s are more internal—from the upset tummy that lands her in the school infirmary at eight to deeper emotional wounds by the show’s end. The mental journey they both travel is a workout for the actors who play these parts.  Luckily, the current cast is up to the challenge. 

Pablo Schreiber, who has appeared in seven plays here in the city over the past seven years, nearly always impresses me and he brings all of his skills to the role of Doug, a sensitive man incapable of expressing what he feels except through heedless flirtations with danger. Jennifer Carpenter is new to me but Bill recognized her as the title character’s sister on the hit cable TV series “Dexter”  and she’s just as compelling as a woman so distressed that she literally inflicts pain on herself (click here to see a video in which the actors and the playwright talk about the piece)

I’m not a big fan of grown-ups playing little kids since it usually comes off as what grown ups think kids are like instead of the real thing.  But under Scott Ellis’ sharp direction, which also has the actors changing costumes and applying fake blood and bruises onstage between scenes, Schreiber and Carpenter make passable 8 and 13 years olds and really come into their own as the characters grow older.

Yet, something felt lacking as Bill and I made our way over to the Broadway canteen Angus McIndoe for dinner after the show, which runs just 80 minutes. I'd had a good time. Despite the subject matter, Joseph can be very funny.  But the more I thought about it, I realized that I simply wasn’t sure what the moral of the tale was. Everyone who has ever been in love knows that the experience can hurt.  What we want from our poets, novelists and playwrights is to tell us why. 

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