Thursday, February 24, 2011

Theater Review: Gruesome Playground Injuries

Location: Second Stage Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

Website: Official Second Stage Theatre site

Starring: Jennifer Carpenter, Pablo Schreiber

My Review: After seeing a show, I usually wait a day or two before writing about it so that I have some time to let it all sink in and form a somewhat thoughtful opinion on what I saw. Polarizing shows that generate a ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ response are easier to get to quicker, while I’ll procrastinate writing about those I have mixed feelings on for as long as I can stand it. It’s been a week since I saw Gruesome Playground Injuries, and I’m basically forcing myself to write about it before I forget everything that happened, which pretty much says everything about how I feel about the show.

The two-person play is the story of the bizarre friendship between Kayleen and Doug over the course of 30 years, told in out-of-order episodes from their life ranging from elementary school childhood to their late 30’s. When they first meet in the nurse’s office of the private school they both attend, Kayleen’s sullen and self-destructive ways immediately bond her to the constantly accident-prone Doug, and the two stumble (sometimes literally) into each other’s lives at lengthy-spaced intervals as they grow up.

Gruesome Playground Injuries is such a mixed bag, and every moment seems to fall slightly short of its aim. When it’s being darkly funny, it generates more of a smirk than an actual laugh. When it’s being touching and poignant, it tries too hard to avoid being mawkish that it misses on being resonant at all. Most of my reaction to the performance can best be broken down into a series of pros and cons:

Pro: The actors. When the entire cast consists of two people, having the wrong two people in those roles can destroy the play before the house lights have dimmed. Luckily, Gruesome Playground Injuries gets its casting exactly right. As Kayleen, Jennifer Carpenter (best known as foulmouthed Debra on Dexter) is perfectly acidic and thorny, but maintains a necessary thread of vulnerability. As Doug, Pablo Schreiber fluidly moves through the various facets of his character, from immature jokester, to Kayleen’s whipping boy, to empathetic friend, to tragic clown as the series of injuries Doug sustains during the course of the show gradually move away from being comic relief. The two actors play their characters at various ages, from eight to 38 and periods in between, and it was amazing at how good they were at portraying the childhood and teenage years without delving into exaggerated stereotypes.

Con: An unconvincing relationship. Kayleen and Doug are best friends. How do I know this? Because the play told me so. Unfortunately, it failed to make be believe it. I believed their awkwardly cute first meeting in the nurse’s office. I believed their stilted flirting and petty arguments as they grew older. But as they became adults and professions of life-long friendship were made, they lost me. It’s established that they don’t see, or even speak, to each other for stretches of years at a time. They conceal major life events from each other. And when they do eventually get together, they do little more than fight with each other. Friendships come in all shapes and sizes, but the one between Kayleen and Doug never felt completely formed or rang true for me, as I found it hard to believe that they really cared about each other all that much (making it hard for the audience to care about them all that much).

Pro: The scenery. Gruesome Playground Injuries is a play that doesn’t need a lot of props or elaborate scenery, so the minimalist Second Stage Theatre was a perfect fit. The stage floor is made of clear Plexiglas cubes, with a pair of shelves with boxy drawers on both sides where the actor’s quick-change costume components are stashed. For each scene a chair, bench, or bed is easily slid in from offstage, then quickly pushed out during the scene change, making the whole production run like a well-oiled machine.

Con: Abrupt ending. The play feels like its building toward something during its 80-minute run, but then it just ends. It wasn’t until the stage went completely dark and other audience members started clapping that I even realized it was over.

Pro: The title. Despite its various shortcomings, Gruesome Playground Injuries is one of the best titles for anything I’ve ever heard.

Bottom Line: A flawed play that is saved by its stellar performers, Gruesome Playground Injuries is nevertheless a play that sticks with you. But not because it’s so memorable or entertaining, but because it’s almost impossible to decide if you really liked it or not.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Theater Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Location: Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ

Website: Official Paper Mill Playhouse site

Starring: Ephie Aardema, Will Blum, Lyle Colby Mackston, Marla Mindelle, Olivia Oguma, Jerold E. Solomon, Ali Stroker, David Volin, Brandon Yanez

My Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is probably one of the most purely fun musicals to come around in the past few years (though it’s still trumped by Avenue Q in that capacity). It’s funny and lighthearted with just enough amount of pathos tossed in to prevent it from being completely unsubstantial. The characters are exaggerated, but still relatable, the story is comical, but not a farce, and the songs are simple and tuneful, but still clever and thoughtful.

Spelling Bee tells the story of six unique students (played by adult actors) competing in a middle school spelling bee. Each dreams of taking home the top prize, but must overcome their individual hurdles to do so. The bee is preceded over by one-time spelling champ Rona and the school’s disgruntled vice principal, and former convict Mitch is performing his community service as the comfort councilor who provides the ousted spellers with a sympathetic pat on the back and a juice box. The spellers relate their various spelling—and personal—woes in a series of songs, including helicoptering same-sex parents and an unfortunately timed erection.

All in all, it’s not an overly complicated show; there are no elaborate set changes, no complicated song and dance numbers, and no need for “serious” actors. Which means that Spelling Bee is the perfect show to let loose with, and each individual production has the potential to be completely unique. There’s even an audience participation element that can be played with by a cast that’s able to think on their feet (a handful of audience members are invited on stage to be participants in the bee).

Unfortunately, no one told the Paper Mill Playhouse that this was a show that they were free to toy around with. I was lucky enough to see Spelling Bee during its Broadway run and found it to be hilarious, and while I wasn’t expecting this new production to live up to those standards, I was still expecting a bit more than what I got. Everything that I saw on stage was very by the book, as if the cast was handed the script and warned about deviating from what was on the page. The resulting production was still amusing, but it could have been uproarious if the cast had just loosened up a bit.

It also didn’t help that they obviously had a stock pile of jokes and quips to be made about the audience participants, rather than improvising in the moment. Maybe this was a conscious decision by the director who felt the cast didn’t have the comedic chops for improv, or maybe it was a huge misstep, but either way, it was noticeable and resulted in a lot of jokes that fell flat.

Bottom Line: For theatergoers who like their musicals frothy and fun, with just a modicum of risqué, Spelling Bee is an ideal choice. Just pray that you get to see a cast that’s willing to play it a little faster and looser than this one.