'Gruesome Playground Injuries': Theater Review

John Flynn
"Gruesome Playground Injuries"
Essentially schematic and anecdotal, this time-bending two-hander achieves an affecting sense of metaphor due to sensitive playing and dialogue.

Pulitzer Prize playwriting finalist Rajiv Joseph conjures a relationship forged in pain, both psychic and physical.

Over the course of 30 years, from ages eight to 38, Kayleen (Jules Willcox) and Doug (Brad Fleischer) “meet cute” in various emergency rooms and hospitals when one or the other (and sometimes both) have been injured or otherwise grievously harmed. Doug is a risk-taking, accident-prone daredevil, Kayleen more apt to be psychically damaged, when not engaged in adolescent cutting. These perpetually wounded souls find kindred intimacy in mutual identification, often as not expressed through the push-pull of immature contrariness.

Rajiv Joseph’s excellent Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist that went to Broadway from its initial pair of Los Angeles premieres at the Kirk Douglas and then the Mark Taper, and his 2006 Huck and Holden won much acclaim for its local production at the Black Dahlia. Gruesome Playground Injuries, nearly more a conceit than a play, exhibits a less ambitious scope, though it sets itself a challenging technical exercise in narration, scrambling the temporal pieces to obtain a shifting, and gradually more revealing, insight into this somewhat precious and prickly empathic relationship.

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Inevitably, the contrivance becomes difficult to ignore, an unavoidable byproduct of the dramatic structure, although long before then the two actors have well-engaged our immutable sympathy. Joseph’s lapidary dialogue conveys a convincing delicacy and feels true to the various ages depicted, finessing the inescapable problem of adult players incarnating children and teens. Fleischer, who originated not only this role but also another in Bengal Tiger, manifests an innate comfort with Joseph’s rhetoric and vision. And Willcox, a veteran local theater star with a multitude of local companies from A Noise Within to Antaeus to Pacific Resident Theatre, sublimates her considerable classical chops to a subdued and subtle effect only possible in the confines of a small house like that of Rogue Machine.

Along the way, Doug loses nearly as many body parts than the fabled huckster Allardyce Meriweather in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (the role Martin Balsam played in the Arthur Penn film). As two arrested characters who grow so very little over so long a period, Kayleen and Doug have an infuriating side that is far from redeemed by their exquisite sensitivity. Even so, the play remains genuinely touching even as it tends to fade in freshness with each new iteration rather than accumulating in power.

Despite its spiritual descent from such dated material as David and Lisa, Gruesome Playground Injuries finds a persuasive modern spin on the thwarted friendship of broken spirits, conveying a credible authenticity despite, and sometimes because of, its adroitly artificial construction. 

Cast: Jules Willcox, Brad Fleischer

Director: Larissa Kokernot

Playwright: Rajiv Joseph

Set designer and technical director: David Mauer

Lighting designer: Dan Weingarten

Sound designer: Colin Wambsgans

Costume designer: Halei Parker

Producers: John Perrin Flynn and David Mauer