The Canadian premiere of New York playwright Rajiv Joseph's romcom with a twist. Or, should we say, a sprain.
We’ve all had our scrapes and bruises from the playground, and chances are the words we used to describe them at the time were “gr-ooooss” or “awwwesome.” But imagine if we never grew out of that ungainly period. In time, our injuries would be more appropriately defined as “gruesome.”
Gruesome Playground Injuries opens inside an elementary school nurse’s office. Doug (Peter Mooney) has a cut face from riding his bike off the roof of the school, while Kayleen (Janet Porter, in a role played by Jennifer Carpenter, from Showtime’s Dexter, during the play’s 2011 off-Broadway run) has just gotten over another case of the stomach flu. At eight years old, they find common ground—albeit a twisted one—in their maladies, and a friendship is born. In Rajiv Joseph’s script, we bounce back and forth to various key points in their relationship, which grows more complex as they age, as do their traumas, both physical and emotional. Even though they lose touch over 30 years of knowing each other, the one thing they can rely on to reunite them is their pain. They become, sometimes literally, each other’s lifelines.
The play isn’t the typical “are-they-or-aren’t-they” romcom we’ve come to know from Hollywood—though there is a bit of comedy, some sweetness in their younger scenes, and a surprisingly enrapturing romance. Mostly, though, there’s a sense of discomfort, urgency, and risk throughout Birdland Theatre’s production, directed by Stefan Dzeparoski. We wouldn’t describe it as pleasurable. But it is certainly strong.
Adding to this is the set design. Joseph Pagnan turns The Theatre Centre into the playground of our nightmares, scattering beat-up school items around until the stage looks like a post-apocalyptic preschool, or a scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street. Mannequins made of bubble wrap hang and cling to the edges of the stage, with different limbs glowing red for each scene. At first, the entire set-up seemed a little too much like Halloween decoration, but the rest of the design crew (Chris Stanton on sound, Gareth Crews on lighting, and Jordan Tannahill on video) brings it all together into a pleasingly haunting whole.
Doug and Kayleen are both extremely flawed. Neither is very likeable. Joseph’s script doesn’t reveal very much about their lives, aside from their ailments and their co-dependency. In theory, this would make for frustrating theatre, but somehow we end up rooting for these two underdogs. Chalk that up to Porter and Mooney’s commitment to their roles, and Joseph’s sense of structure and dialogue.
Joseph is best known for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, featuring Robin Williams in its Broadway run, which was a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Many are looking upon him (Joseph, not Williams) as a major emerging talent in contemporary American theatre, and rightfully so.
Usually, when we hear lovers pledge “I’ll die without you,” it’s hyperbole. But in Gruesome Playground Injuries, it’s fact—and high stakes like that are what make this show worth catching while you can.