Alley Theatre through Nov. 15
By JOHN DeMERS
This powerhouse, the first work to reach the stage via the Alley’s New Play Initiative, is a 90-minute, no-intermission tragedy with more belly laughs than all but the finest comedies. It may also be a piece of living literature. Living because it’s set before us by two fine young actors, rather than handed to us as words printed in a book. Literature because it achieves grace and power not primarily from action, costumes or sets but from its profoundly nuanced language. I’ve never been one to enjoy reading plays. For Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries, I might consider making an exception.
Sensitively directed by Rebecca Taichman, Selma Blair and Brad Fleischer give us two characters seen at different moments between the ages of 8 and 38. Kayleen and Doug are certainly friends, though they may be alternately good or bad for each other. We never see them become lovers, yet it is clear that each is the love of the other’s life. Both are haunted by pain and loss, but in very different ways: Kayleen by the lifelong desire to hurt herself, Doug (to the audience’s delight) by the tendency to fall into some very creative accidents. There is nary a meaningful piece of Doug that won’t be broken, sliced up, poked out, gouged or crushed in the course of this play. And in the process, yes, hilarity nearly always ensues.
One of the central tricks Joseph uses here is the jumbling up of chronology. Hollywood would surely make a neater, more predictable tale, no doubt leading to an ending full of hope. Joseph keeps showing us something that might be the end, then taking us to back to an earlier scene before transporting us to an even later one. No, this isn’t like life – for life is nothing if not chronological. It’s more like a dream – often a bad dream for Kayleen and Doug – but it’s mostly just the coolest way Joseph can think of to keep our interest while developing his story.
Blair and Fleischer are incredible in their evocation of the characters’ fast-changing ages, easily playing 20-somethings and 30-somethings but also becoming convincing kids of 8 and 13. Fleischer makes good use of his significant stage experience, including work in an earlier Joseph drama called Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Blair, making her live theater debut after plenty of film and TV work, seems as comfortable in the new zone as one of Shakespeare’s veteran players.
The play never actually stops, each vignette ushered into the next by one or both of the actors putting away shoes, jackets and other props right in front of us to pull out what’s required next. This is accomplished within a beautifully spare set (by Riccardo Hernandez) that lines the four sides of a square floor with drawers that open and shut, each cabinet topped with a kind of glass channel full of water. For most of the early going, there is a bed at the center that, with changes of sheets, pillows and a handful of other things, acts as home to any number of developments. At times, the bed looks and feels more like an altar – but more on that in a moment.
If the temptation is to encounter Gruesome as some post-modern, post-Beckett really black comedy, it is (time and again) Joseph’s quietly poetic language that lifts the story and occasionally our hearts. It becomes clear, for instance, even as the timeframes jump backward, forward and back again, that something meaningful happened between Kayleen and Doug on the night of her father’s wake. That moment, when we finally are allowed to enter into it, is indeed a bloodletting in more ways than one. But it also may be the most touching (if most bizarre) declaration of love in the history of the world.
Joseph’s language – while struck through with natural profanities between two adults who love, hate and repeatedly injure each other, as well as with childhood traditionals like “stupid,” “retarded” and “gross” – trembles with an additional layer of meaning drawn from what might seem the least likely source.
It’s no accident that our earliest encounter with Kayleen and Doug is at their Catholic elementary school, and indeed the rich language of Catholic liturgy deepens the action, whether audience members notice or not. There is talk of healing, even the laying on of hands. There is water, as in baptism into new life, as in washing away sins. There are clothes, folded and unfolded like vestments through the church year. There are angels mentioned repeatedly, even the way two people may (or may not) be each other’s guardian angels. And there are near-constant references, verbal and ultimately visual, to blood – linking the painful Way of the Cross we’re forced to watch to the sacrifice and sacrament believers find in the Mass.
Unlike the Mass, however, Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries offers us no perfectly rounded, perfectly glorious story arc that invites us all to “go in peace.” There is no peace for Kayleen and Doug, not then and not now, presumably not ever. But for us, there is the catharsis of having traveled their deeply felt and brilliantly evoked Via Dolorosa right alongside them.
Photo by Kevin Berne: Selma Blair and Brad Fleischer in the Alley’s Gruesome Playground Injuries.