That’s going to leave a mark
Blue Room opens season with modern look at the pain of living
Ask someone what they had for lunch last Tuesday and they’ll struggle to remember. Ask about the first time a bone—or their heart—was broken and you’re likely to get a vivid, detail-laden recollection of something that may have happened decades ago.
Pain is among the most significant aspects of the human condition, and the scars on our skin and souls read like a roadmap of our journey through life. This truism is the basis of the Blue Room Theatre’s latest production, Gruesome Playground Injuries, by Rajiv Joseph.
Gruesome Playground Injuries tracks the lives of two friends and would-be lovers over the course of 30 years, beginning with their first playground meeting at age 8, in which happy-go-lucky, accident-prone Doug implores introspective Kayleen to touch his head wound.
Doug and Kayleen’s 30-year saga is told through eight separate, non-linear snapshots, each centered on the pair’s varied periods of pain. While Doug’s suffering manifests in a series of sometimes bizarre and increasingly severe physical injuries, Kayleen’s wounds are mostly emotional—and more deeply damaging than Doug’s bodily harm—and stem from parental neglect, sexual assault and other issues which contribute to her own self-destructive behavior. At each meeting, life’s circumstances and personal hang-ups keep them from connecting on the next level.
While it all sounds—and is, to some degree—rather sad, the play is not overwrought with sentimentality nor overwhelmingly maudlin. Quite the opposite: It’s endearing and often laugh-out-loud funny. This is largely a credit to Joseph’s writing and how it’s handled by the cast of two—Brett Edwards and Delisa Freistadt.
Both Edwards’ and Freistadt’s portrayals make the characters completely relatable. We all know one or several Kayleens and Dougs, both as individuals and as pairs. Edwards’ Doug is everyone’s goofy friend or brother whose extroversion and apparent confidence mask a deeper sensitivity and longing, while Freistadt’s Kayleen is the sweet girl whose circumstances and lack of self-esteem render her blind to her own worth.
The play’s set is simple, with subtle, thoughtful inclusions, like a set of tire swings that—though never actually used—establish the playground setting and strengthen the impact of other scenes alluded to but never shown. Having the actors change at the back of the stage, in full view of the audience, helped convey how the characters changed in the years between scenes. Before walking back into the scene, Freistadt and Edwards would meet center-stage to correct each other’s wardrobes and share a moment, a rare glimpse into their craft that added to their onstage chemistry.
One of biggest strengths of director Martin Chavira and company’s production is the contemporary feeling of the play. Joseph is a contemporary writer (he moonlights in Nurse Jackie’s bullpen and has penned other successful works for stage and screen), and the actors are somewhere between the ages of 8 and 38 that they depict during the performance. Kudos to whomever chose the canned music played between scenes, a collection of excellent indie-rock songs that enhanced the ambience.
The music, acting, source material and easily palatable 90-minute running time combined to make the whole experience not dissimilar to watching a contemporary indie film. This makes the play a great entry point for people plagued with the standard misperceptions about theater—that it is too weird, too wordy, too old-fashioned or too cerebral. Anyone who’s enjoyed a film like, say, Garden State, should have no problem enjoying Gruesome Playground Injuries. In turn, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see a film version of the play in the near future.