Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Superficial Wounds

Carpenter and Schreiber in Gruesome Playground Injuries (photo by Joan Marcus)

Gruesome Playground Injuries
Written by Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Scott Ellis
Starring Jennifer Carpenter, Pablo Schreiber
Performances through February 20, 2011
Second Stage Theater, 307 West 43rd Street

In Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries, Doug and Kayleen are life-long friends whom we see, in jumbled chronology, from ages eight to thirty-eight. Over three decades, Doug (played with gleaming goofiness by Pablo Schreiber) becomes ever more overwhelmed by pain and suffering to the point that when he loses an eye in a fireworks accident, he’s satisfied with his achievement. Kayleen (played with endearing ordinariness by Jennifer Carpenter), though outwardly disgusted by his predilections, is secretly intrigued by the growing gruesomeness to the point that she becomes his confidante, as fascinated as he is by what the human body can and can’t endure.

Like J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash (and subsequent David Cronenberg movie), Gruesome Playground Injuries chronicles people debased by life who compensate by fetishizing what 99.99% of the population finds abhorrent or even insane. Unlike Ballard and Cronenberg, however, Joseph doesn’t have the courage of his convictions, instead letting his odd couple’s relationship play out in a cutesy manner, cushioning the blows of their shared fetish, which also prevents him from probing too deeply into how their psychological scars manifest themselves physically.

Superficiality may be almost unavoidable in an 80-minute play, especially when scenes end with a symbolic visual or verbal punch line: as when, as teenagers, they vomit into a wastebasket and Doug grinningly swirls it together and shows the mixture to Kayleen (which, after predictable hemming and hawing, she approves of it). But since Joseph doesn’t credibly portray their shared pathology, we’re left with two nice kids who are…well, different.

The appealing Carpenter and Schreiber, although they make believable youngsters and teens, rarely get a chance to stretch themselves by playing more psychologically explosive moments together. The closest the play comes is the adult Kayleen’s monologue when she visits a comatose Doug in the hospital after his latest calamity. But it’s not enough to give these Injuries—savvily directed by Scott Ellis on a wonderfully realized set by Neil Patel that, in its sterile opaqueness, is both a perfect setting for the characters and changing room for the actors—the collective punch in the gut it could be.

No comments: