Pablo Schreiber and Jennifer Carpenter
in Gruesome Playground Injuries
(© Joan Marcus)
Pablo Schreiber and Jennifer Carpenter
in Gruesome Playground Injuries
(© Joan Marcus)
Rajiv Joseph charts the course of a 30-year friendship -- and curious romance -- in Gruesome Playground Injuries, now running at Second Stage Theatre. Directed by Scott Ellis and terrifically performed by Pablo Schreiber and Jennifer Carpenter, the work frustrates audiences, even as it shocks and intrigues.

Audiences meet Doug (Schreiber) and Kayleen (Carpenter) just after he, in a prepubescent fit of bravado, has attempted to ride his bike off the roof of the Catholic School they both attend. He's bleeding profusely from his forehead, and, though in pain, is filled with a certain amount of pride about his feat. Kayleen, who's out of class because of an upset stomach, finds herself strangely drawn to her wounded classmate. From this opening, audiences glimpse their relationship in five year intervals -- played in non-sequential order -- as they encounter one another in similarly heightened and painful circumstances.

Joseph's metaphor is self-evident. The physical injuries that bring them together in hospital emergency rooms (and even a visit to a psychiatric institute) are overt manifestations for the emotional and psychological traumas they suffer as they move through life. Unfortunately, it's not until late in the 80-minute piece that theatergoers learn any concrete details about what may make Doug and Kayleen behave as they do, and Joseph's deliberate omission of any context for the couple's interaction often makes it difficult to understand their incredible need for one another.

What pulls audiences are Carpenter and Schreiber's detailed and shrewdly observed turns. She captivates immediately, communicating Kayleen's simultaneous revulsion and intense fascination with Doug's head wound. Later, when Doug lies comatose in a hospital, Carpenter is simply heartbreaking as she fills Kayleen with concurrent levels of fear, anger, need, and genuine love for Doug as she berates the stupidity that has caused his condition.

Similarly, Schreiber finds subtle nuances in Doug's often hyperkinetic adrenaline overdrive. But, his best work comes when the character is not coming off of one of his adventures, but rather when he's supporting his friend, most notably during a scene when the two have just finished high school and she confides in him about her relationship with her boyfriend. In this sequence, Schreiber's edgy performance takes on a surprising delicacy.

Joseph captures the inarticulateness of the characters with remarkable precision. In fact, his ability to bring ineloquence to the stage might be one of the play's drawbacks. Retorts like "You're stupid," though natural, lose their potency as the play progresses. And yet, he manages to pack the simplistic dialogue with a pungency that does communicate the depth of the characters' feeling for one another.

Ellis' production unfolds with ease within the sterile frame of opaque and clear plexiglass cubes from scenic designer Neil Patel. The cubes provide the performers with easy access to props and costume accessories that they use as the scenes flip back and forth through time. And those at the front of the stage, filled with water, allow for the removal of the copious amounts of stage blood that flow from Doug's various injuries.