Rajiv Joseph is one of the best rising playwrights in America. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for the Broadway production Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo that starred Robin Williams. I have reviewed many of his plays including the terrific world premiere production of his psychological thriller The North Pool at TheatreWorks. His 2009 Off Broadway hit Gruesome Playground Injuries is currently playing in a sterling production at The Hudson Theatres.
In eight non-sequential vignettes, Joseph reveals the darkly comic story of star-crossed lovers Doug (Jeff Ward) and Kayleen (Sara Rae Foster) over a thirty-year period spanning the characters’ ages from eight to thirty-eight. They meet for the first time in the school nurse’s office where Kayleen is ensconced for an upset stomach and Dougie enters with a bad cut on his forehead, which he received by riding his bike off the roof of the school. The pattern is repeated over the years with Doug and Kayleen meeting after one or the other or both have suffered some kind of damage, she with internal traumas caused by emotional pain and he with body broken by his adventurous, unwise choices. They clearly have an affinity for one another; she has an ability to soothe his physical pain while he draws her out of her stewing angst. As they spar, spark and misfire, they reveal themselves to each other in astonishing ways. They are clearly soul mates who cannot seem to connect in the permanent way of conventional love stories.
The actors are in perfect sync with one another, their affection palpable even when the characters are at cross-purposes. The handsome Mr. Ward is lively and animated, often plain goofy with his heart on his sleeve, while Ms. Foster’s character, continually suffering with an inward pain that manifests itself in physical ways, matches his boldness. The poignancy of their dilemma is terrifically affecting.
Director John Hindman gets every bit of emotion and comedy from both the script and his players giving the audience ample opportunities for laughter and tears. What more can you ask?
The scene design by J R Bruce, with lighting by Leigh Allen, is bare and flexible with the actors shifting the scenery. It is the conceit of the play that the actors effect their changes of costume (designer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg) in full view of the audience, which occurs upstage in intriguingly dim light as video projections by Dustin Reno play on three large screens behind them. Sound is designed by the always-excellent Christopher Moscatiello.
Gruesome Playground Injuries, presented by Colleen Camp Productions and CRAZYface Productions, runs through June 26 at The Hudson Theatres, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd. in Los Angeles.