Even by Woolly Mammoth standards, Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries is a strange little play. A potent mixture of the hapless and tragic, Gruesome has you chortling at poked-out eyes and busted teeth, and swallowing back tears at the cosmic unfairness of soulmates who are perennial victims of mismatched timing.
Director John Vreeke exhibits an affinity for the madcap and melancholy aspects of Mr. Joseph’s play, which is receiving an oddly life-affirming production at Woolly Mammoth. The premise takes the cliché “you always hurt the one you love” to almost absurd extremes, as friends Kayleen (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) and Doug (Tim Getman) first meet at age 8 in their Catholic school nurse’s office—she has a dodgy stomach, he ripped his face open playing Evel Knievel on the roof—and then leap between 30 years of memories and meetings in emergency rooms and medical wards.
Doug is a daredevil jock with a bit of a death wish; Kayleen’s injuries are more internal and crushing to the soul. They both have a talent for mishaps, which both binds them and keeps them apart. He believes she’s his healing angel; she believes he’s the only person who really sees the psychic shrapnel tearing her up inside. This may not sound like something that would have you ripping your stitches with laughter, but the ironically happy-go-lucky tone of the play makes it buoyant rather than bogged down in meaning.
Their almost mystical affinity echoes through the years as the characters move between becoming wounded adults and going back to the resilient, alive children they once were. Their relationship is played out in a set by Misha Kachman that affirms the notion that life is not only a game, but one where you will likely get hurt—a rundown hockey rink with the audience in the round, playing the arena’s spectators. The play’s scenes and time changes are projected on a broken scoreboard and the actors execute quick changes at dressers and gym lockers scattered around the rink.
The actors are entirely convincing as the younger selves, with Mr. Getman’s open-armed exuberance (even sprained ankles and missing eyes can’t keep him down for long) bouncing off of Miss Fernandez-Coffey’s protective armor of sarcasm and scoffing. Mr. Getman’s boyishness is endearing, even more so when you see him at the end of the play, his appetite for thrill-seeking finally quelled as he navigates toward middle age in a broken body. Miss Fernandez-Coffey’s Kayleen is more prickly and complex, seeming to internalize the bumps and bruises suffered by her friend.
While the play’s quirky humor invigorates, it is the undercurrent of yearning that takes the play beyond a litany of injuries endured by two self-destructive people. It’s sad that Kayleen can only speak honestly about her feelings while Doug is in a coma. Even sadder is knowing that pain—not love—is their deepest connection.
Gruesome Playground Injuries
by Rajiv Joseph
directed by John Vreeke
produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre
reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Gruesome Playground Injuries runs thru June 13, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.
GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES