A series of Gruesome Playground Injuries (and other assorted wounds, both external and internal) provide the ties that bind two wounded souls from ages eight to thirty-eight in Rajiv Joseph’s aptly-titled Gruesome Playground Injuries, an imperfect play turned into a powerful theatrical experience thanks to the kind of superb performances, direction, and design that have become the hallmark of Rogue Machine.
We first meet Doug (Brad Fleischer) and Kayleen (Jules Willcox) in the elementary school nurse’s office where the two third-graders have been sent for first aid, he for having done his best Evil Knievel by bicycling off a roof, she for a case of the chronic barfs, and as befits a pair of eight-year-olds, their obvious mutual attraction and fascination with each other is tempered by pre-adolescent jibes.
Flash forward to age twenty-three, and a far more serious, fireworks-related eye injury Doug has just suffered on the night of Kayleen’s father’s wake. Not that parent and child were ever all that close, their estrangement being just one of the reasons behind Kayleen’s penchant for self-destructive behavior, her mother’s long-ago departure yet another. (That playwright Joseph only hints at the whys and wherefores of the two friends’ never-ending accidents and afflictions is but one reason Gruesome Playground Injuries needs actors the caliber of Fleischer and Willcox to work.)
It’s not until scene three, which takes us back to Doug and Kayleen at age thirteen, that it becomes clear that Gruesome Playground Injuries won’t be escorting us on a chronological journey through our hero and heroine’s lives, for no sooner have we left their experiment in first-kissing (or rather in practicing for each other’s first kiss with someone else) than we find ourselves with them at age twenty-eight, and then at eighteen, and at thirty-three, and once again at twenty-three, before a final, poignant (if not altogether satisfying) final scene fades out on the thirty-eight-year-olds they’ve become.
Abandoning chronological order can work to perfection when there’s obvious method to an author’s madness. Take for instance, Harold Pinter’s Betrayal or Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along, whose innocent, hopeful endings prove ironic because we know how it has all “begun.” And even when we might not understand a writer’s motives in moving back and forth in time, a play can have so much going for it that succeeds simply through chutzpah and daring, The Antaeus Company’s recent Top Girls a case in point.
In Gruesome Playground Injuries, it isn’t all that evident why playwright Joseph has us traveling through time, other than to keep us on our toes and guessing. Yes, this jumping around in time gives actors the additional challenge of going from child to 20something to teenager and back again—and Fleischer and Willcox couldn’t be more marvelous or nuanced at giving us Doug and Kayleen at different ages. Still, this jumbled-time conceit doesn’t help us to get close to two characters who keep distancing themselves from each other, and from us.
It doesn’t help either that, at least on paper, Doug and Kayleen are rather a tad too “high concept” to be completely believable. Yes, some folks are accident prone and others more deliberate in their self-injury, but our star-crossed friends lose a certain credibility for being extreme examples of each. Add to that Kayleen’s purported power to heal with just a touch of her hands and you’ve got characters that aren’t quite true to life as most of us know it.
Still, Joseph’s writing talents cannot be denied, his Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo having not only scored the playwright an L.A. Ovation Award nomination in 2009 and a 2011 Broadway run but placed him on the 2010 Pulitzer Prize Finalists’ list as well. His dialog is smart and biting—and at times unexpectedly funny for a play that can hardly be called a comedy. Take for example when eight-year-old Doug responds to one of Kayleen’s putdowns with an “Everybody thinks because I’m awesome at sports and always get hurt that I’m stupid, but I am brave.” It’s no wonder, then, that there’s probably not an acting class across America that hasn’t seen at least one scene from Gruesome Playground Injuries.
It’s no wonder either that Rogue Machine picked Joseph’s two-hander as a follow-up to their previous two-actor tour-de-forces Dying City and Blackbird. Who could say no to a play by a hot young playwright featuring roles as meaty as Doug and Kayleen, not when you’ve got the talented and charismatic Fleischer reprising the role he originated in Gruesome Playground Injuries’ 2009 World Premiere, not when you’ve got the gorgeous and gifted Willcox to play opposite him, and not when you’ve got a director as inventive as Larissa Kokernot, whose work here is the very definition of inspired.
Not only is Kokernot an actor’s director (and Fleischer and Willcox could hardly be better under her guidance), her sense of the visual keeps us glued to the action that unfolds on David Mauer’s brilliantly designed set. Having her actors write each scene’s title (“Age Eight: Face Split Open,” “Twenty-Three: Eye Blown Out”) on a chalkboard rather than as projections is a clever touch. Cleverer still is Kokernot’s decision to have Willcox/Kayleen clean Fleischer/Doug’s wounds between scenes rather than having the actor/character tend to them himself. And even these scene changes prove watchable with a precision-choreographed Fleischer and Willcox making subtle yet striking changes to Mauer’s set.
With so many scenes taking place in a nurse’s office or hospital room, Mauer’s transformation of the more intimate of Rogue Machine’s two theaters into a quasi operating room, with the audience looking down on it from three sides, is another of the production’s inspired touches. That the set features a pair of actors’ dressing room tables and makeup lights is another stroke of genius, given the many costume/makeup changes that take place between scenes.
Speaking of costumes, designer Halei Parker has confectioned a series of distinct male and female ensembles requiring only the minimum amount of onstage outfit-changing. As for the production’s lighting design, they don’t get any more exquisitely nuanced than Dan Weingarten’s; sound designer Colin Wambsgans links scenes with an evocative string-based original score; and Jennifer McHugh scores top marks for a property design that includes plenty of bandages, fake blood, an eyepatch, and a cleverly chosen Hole poster that says everything about teen-angsty Kayleen at a glance.
Still, the most compelling reasons to catch Gruesome Playground Injuries are its two stars. Fleischer takes Doug from adorably feisty pit bull pup to battle-scarred grownup. Willcox’s sassy, precocious eight-year-old gives way to deeply aching young adult. Together, the two actors have an ease, confidence, and connection that is palpable. Willcox is an L.A. treasure we’ll be lucky to keep on our coast as long as we can. That Fleischer has relocated from NYC to our city is reason to celebrate. Rogue Machine couldn’t be more blessed than to have them sharing the same stage.
Gruesome Playground Injuries is produced by John Perrin Flynn and Mauer, the latter also technical director. Ramón Valdez is stage manager. Amanda Mauer is production manager. Ivan Rivas and Jamie Wollrab are assistant directors. Casting is by Victoria Hoffman. The roles of Doug and Kayleen are covered by Ryan Mulkay and Tania Verafield.
No, Gruesome Playground Injuries isn’t a perfect play, and it could easily miss the mark with artists less exceptional than Fleischer, Willcox, and Kokernot. Fortunately, in hands as supremely capable as theirs and Rogue Machine’s, it proves yet another winner for one of L.A.’s finest companies.
Rogue Machine at Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles.
May 26, 2014
Photos: John Flynn