Gruesome Playground Injuries
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
February 4, 2011
Internal and external scars are the ties that bind a pair of lost souls in Rajiv Joseph’s touching play Gruesome Playground Injuries, given a satisfying production by Scott Ellis for Second Stage Theatre.
The two-hander non-linearly charts the lives of Doug and Kayleen from ages 8 to 38, starting with their first meeting, a chance encounter in the nurse’s office. She has stomach pains, which will haunt her for years to come. He, in a bid to be Evel Knievel, bicycled off the parochial school’s roof. A gash on his forehead is just the first of his increasingly weird injuries as the years progress. The friends—best friends, until they disappear from one another’s lives, only to suddenly reappear every five years—share a mythical quality. No matter how severe his flesh injury, she can always make him heal. But her wounds go far deeper than the flesh.
Pablo Schreiber and Jennifer Carpenter deliver enormously affecting performances—his, brash and bold; hers, quietly understated. They create fully-rounded characters at each age, never falling into the traps that await adult actors playing children, though Carpenter employs a strange pseudo-lisp for Kayleen’s youngest self that she doesn’t carry through.
Schreiber, the tenderest he’s ever been on stage, at times pushes too hard, but it ultimately suits the character, a daredevil who at one point survives a coma after getting struck by lightning. Carpenter, who has grown considerably as an actress through five seasons playing the tenacious Debra Morgan on the Showtime series Dexter, is particularly adept at playing Kayleen’s inner turmoil, bringing a brooding, haunted quality to the role that suits it quite well.
What’s more, the two have palpably strong chemistry that is visible in even the smallest moments, like their changing costumes (and he injuries) in full view of the audience, a detail present in Joseph’s script. Neil Patel’s antibacterial set and Donald Holder’s lighting evoke that grim feeling that takes over your body as you enter a hospital.
As evidenced by his previous plays, including the beautiful Animals Out of Paper, Joseph is a keen observer of human behavior and speech. Not only do his characters seem real, they speak as real people would. Doug and Kayleen are not the most educated or erudite, and their vocabulary, consisting of “stupid,” “retarded,” and a certain four-letter word, reflect their worldly stations. That they are not the most developed characters is this play’s one major flaw, and lesser actors could easily turn in less-than-believable performances.
Fans of Joseph’s work only have to wait a few more weeks to get a taste of the next one. His 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, opens on Broadway in March, starring Robin Williams in the title role. But until then, Gruesome Playground Injuries will fulfill your desire for an interesting new American play.