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.

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