Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuries, currently on offer from R-S Theatrics at Crestwood ArtSpace, charts the intertwined lives of two friends across 30 years of physical and emotional tragedies. As Kayleen's (Christina Rios) and Doug's (Mark Kelley) otherwise divergent paths periodically intersect, each meeting precipitated by Doug being busted up in some fashion, we see the childhood friends flail their way through life while moving inexorably toward a romantic relationship that Kayleen always rejects. It's a little bit like When Harry Met Sally, but with a stronger sadomasochistic streak.
We first encounter the pair at age eight, when they meet-cute in the nurse's office. Doug has ridden his bike off the school's roof; Kayleen's got a bellyache. This initial meeting is replicated again and again, as Doug is wounded from without by fireworks, a hockey game, a fellow teenager and other means best experienced as a surprise, while Kayleen's injuries are always internalized, caused more by emotional and mental issues than a mistimed M-80, but she suffers no less than Doug.
Actually, no matter how much of a beating Doug takes, he rarely seems to suffer. His broken bones and missing teeth are exciting, his scars proudly worn. It's part of his charm. Kelley's performance as the thirteen-year-old Doug is highly entertaining, as he limps around the nurse's office on a badly twisted ankle, urging a queasy Kayleen to practice kissing with him so that they'll both have some experience when they get to their first kiss.
As you might expect, Rios' performance is more inwardly directed. Kayleen's mysterious stomach pains stem from her strained relationship with her parents, her poor choice of men as romantic partners as she grows older, and, seemingly, from her constant rebuffing of Doug's love. Why does she reject him as a lover while keeping him as a friend? That's the big mystery, to Doug and the audience, and maybe to her as well. Joseph's script strongly implies that Doug and Kayleen are the cause of each other's pain, but each of them is clearly the other's only solace in their respective lives.
By the end of the evening, that shared cycle of destruction has taken a toll on both of them, and the audience as well. Their final scene features both actors' strongest performances, but the play limps to a close nonetheless. The novelty of seeing what's wrong with Doug this time and who's done what to Kayleen has worn thin, and you just want them either be together in misery or apart in misery. Either way it's not a satisfying finish.
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