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Critics don’t seem to know what to make of Rajiv Joseph‘s 2011 character study, Gruesome Playground Injuries, about a relationship marked by painful accidents followed by chance meetings. Ben Brantley of The New York Times excoriated it when it premiered at the Second Stage, calling it a “blood-spattered twig of a play.” L.A. Weekly was a bit more conciliatory, describing it as “funny and harrowingly truthful,” and The Hollywood Reporter‘s Myron Meisel called it “more a conceit than a play.”
“I tend not to really think about the reviews that much,” Joseph tells THR about the two-hander, which was recently held over until Aug. 4 in its West Coast premiere at Rogue the Machine Theatre. “The response to Gruesome Playground Injuries, generally, audiencewise, has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s far and away my most produced play.”
In his nine years as a playwright, Joseph, 40, has grown accustomed to going against the grain. In fact, his acclaimed Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was rejected by every theater he sent it to. “I was still very young when I wrote the first scene of Bengal Tiger as a 10-minute play,” he recalls about the sardonic drama that established his career. “No one responded to it, and so I just assumed it wasn’t good.”
It finally found a home at L.A.’s Center Theatre Group, which mounted it twice, once at Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theater and again at the Mark Taper Forum. From there it went to Broadway, with Robin Williams starring, and was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.
Released earlier this year, his football drama, Draft Day, was written with friend Scott Rothman while attending grad school at N.Y.U. They sold it to Lionsgate as a spec (nearly unheard of for a first-timer these days), and Ivan Reitman directed Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner in the film. Although it flopped at the box office, Joseph and Rothman got sole screenplay credit (also nearly unheard of for first-time writers).
“No one understands,” he confided about his respectful treatment by Hollywood. “Everyone who hears our story in Hollywood is like, ‘What the hell happened here?’ ”
In Gruesome Playground Injuries, two accident-prone friends meet over 30 years in the emergency rooms of various hospitals. Brad Fleischer plays Doug opposite local L.A. theater stalwart Jules Willcox as Kayleen in this rumination on why we hurt ourselves to win the love of another.
It began simply enough over a barroom conversation in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn where Joseph lives. A friend started telling him about hair-raising injuries he received over the years, including the time a girl accidentally ice-skated over his eye lid. It gave Joseph the idea of charting a memoir through various accidents over time. By the time he had left the bar, Joseph had jotted down the title of the play on a matchbook.
“I didn’t even think it would be a play,” he recalls about the unnervingly easy time he had writing it. “I wrote it faster than I’ve written other plays and rewrote it less than I’ve rewritten any other play.”
While part of him was satisfied with what he had, another part wasn’t so sure, so he began workshopping it at The Lark, a New York theater lab, to see how it sounded on its feet. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Credit for the L.A. run at Rogue the Machine falls squarely on the shoulders of Fleischer, who originated the role of Doug in the play’s world premiere in Houston and approached the company about mounting the play’s West Coast premiere.
Joseph appeared at a production last month and took questions from the audience while on a trip through town, taking meetings on future projects and catching up with friends from Nurse Jackie, of which he’s written 10 episodes. Opening next season at South Coast Rep, his new play, Mr. Wolf, is a tragedy about a family dealing with child abduction. At New York’s Atlantic Theater, he will open Guards at the Taj, a two-hander about a pair of guards at the completion of the Taj Mahal in 1648.
But before those two world premieres, Joseph will sit back and bask in the success of Gruesome Playground Injuries. “We just got extended,” he said of the three weeks added to the show’s schedule. “It’s doing really well. Audiences are loving it.”
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