23 February 2011

'Gruesome Playground Injuries'

My frequent theater companion, Diana, and I saw the new play by Rajiv Joseph, Gruesome Playground Injuries, at the Second Stage Theatre on Friday evening, 18 February. The 2ST production, directed by Scott Ellis and starring Jennifer Carpenter and Pablo Schreiber, was the New York première, but the play had been staged twice before: Houston’s Alley Theatre, 16 October-15 November 2009, and the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., 17 May-19 June 2010. (Everett Evans in the Houston Chronicle wrote, “GPI reveals an original voice with a knack for blending quirky humor and unexpected poignancy,” and in the Washington Post, Peter Marks said that Joseph takes a “jaunty, quirkily amusing tone” with the characters’ relationship.)

I’ve never seen any of Joseph’s work before, though this is his third show for 2ST (All This Intimacy, 2006; Animals Out of Paper, 2008) and his dark comedy Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer, will open on Broadway in March. Another new play, The North Pool, will première in Palo Alto, California, in March and the Alley will début The Monster at the Door in May. The playwright, who currently writes for the cable series Nurse Jackie, recounts that the play was inspired when he was in a bar talking with a friend who told Joseph about “terrifying and bizarre” childhood injuries he’d suffered. Later, while his friend went to replenish their drinks, Joseph wrote the title of his new play on a slip of paper. “I thought it would be an interesting way of charting one’s life—through one’s history of physical trauma,” said the playwright. “When I began to work on it, I figured a relationship could be measured the same way . . . .”

The 80-minute play’s structure is a little reminiscent of that oldie Same Time, Next Year, as the two characters, Kayleen and Doug, meet when they’re 8 and run into one another in the school nurse’s office. (In fact, the New York Times’s Ben Brantley quipped that the play could be renamed Same Time, Next Scar, though GPI’s vignettes aren’t in chronological order.) The two continue to meet at intervals for the next 30 years at the infirmary, a funeral parlor, and several hospitals. (The same actors, Carpenter, 31, and Schreiber, 32, play the two characters from childhood to adulthood.) Each time they meet, they compare wounds, scars, and hurts, finding that the injuries draw them together. Why and what it all means is the real subject under Joseph’s examination in GPI. The playwright confessed, “I’ve always been interested in . . . how primal forces like longing, or desire or a hunger for faith can take us to wild places,” and Patrick Healy of the New York Times reported that Joseph’s “wrestling with whether [Kayleen’s and Doug’s] continued pattern of—and attraction to—physical harm reflected brokenness in their souls.”

The reviews were mixed, both across the spectrum and within each notice. Almost all of them included elements of both intrigue and disappointment, mostly with Joseph’s script, which is episodic by design and jumps back and forth in time (15 years forward, then 10 years back); but there were comments placing some of the blame on the two actors for not being able to overcome the problems Joseph’s script hands them. (Both actors are currently working in cable TV series, Carpenter on Showtime’s Dexter as a serial killer’s sister, and Schreiber, who’s Liev Schreiber’s younger half-brother, on the FX show Lights Out as the brother and manager of a boxer. But both have also had considerable stage experience, including Schreiber’s Tony-nominated appearance in Lincoln Center’s Awake and Sing in 2006 and Carpenter’s turn in the Roundabout’s Crucible in 2002.) Some reviewers leaned more toward the positive (AP’s Jocelyn Noveck on ABCNews.com called the play a “strange but absorbing journey of pain” and Marilyn Stasio called it “wondrous strange” in Variety), others the negative (Elisabeth Vincentelli described GPI as “uneven” in the New York Post and Brantley called it “a blood-spattered twig of a play”), but they all suggested Gruesome Playground Injuries isn’t a play for the faint-hearted or squeamish. (Of course, the play’s title is a pretty clear warning.)

To be honest, the injuries, while ghastly enough in the abstract (a lost eye, a lightning strike), really end up seeming more cartoon-like than truly disturbing. Most, of course, are only described or named, often in the language of kids, and those that are visible . . . well, let’s just say we’re not in Sam Peckinpah territory here. I’m not going to catalogue the mishaps and damage (as most of the reviews did to some degree); I don’t want to give that much of the concept away. I won’t try to psychoanalyze the characters’ frequent encounters with harm, either, whether deliberate or accidental, as several of the published reviewers have done. I’m not qualified, in the first place, and Joseph has left too many possibilities open. In fact, this is emblematic of the whole play, as I’ll try to explain in a moment.

There are many shortcomings in GPI, some more significant than others. But first, let me outline what was good—even very good—about the 2ST production. First, and foremost, the acting was top-notch. There aren’t a lot of pyrotechnics called for in the script, but both Schreiber and Carpenter executed the shifts between ages nicely and believably. The trick is that they don’t get to age successively from eight to 38, which makes the transitions harder for them, I’d think; the scenes jump from eight to 23, then back to 13, up to 28, and so on, so the two actors must age up then drop back to a child or teen without being able to ease into the next scene. (Alexis Soloski of the Village Voice says the pattern is “elegant” in its contrast with the “messiness” of the characters’ lives, but I found it mostly a contrivance.) Okay, I’m twice Schreiber’s age now, so maybe I don’t remember what it was like to be eight or 13—or even 18; but I’ve taught teens within living memory and I’ve watched my cousins’ kids pass through those ages, and Carpenter and Schreiber were mighty convincing without being showy or clichéd. As adults, too, they embodied the kind of despair you might expect from people whose prospects are few and dispiriting—waiting tables and (ironically) claims-adjusting, for example. The emptiness increases as they get older, and since the actors don’t get simply to slide up the scale, the accomplishment was even more laudable. It was very nice work.

Schreiber’s Doug has more to do than Carpenter’s Kayleen, and he made the best of the possibilities. Doug’s an athlete as well as a daredevil. (In the first scene, where he’s “split his face open” from riding his bike off the school’s roof, he says he was emulating Evel Knievel.) So he’s more physical in the little set, giving Schreiber a chance to show the teenager’s gangly energy and the twenty-something’s careless physicality. Carpenter was more physically restrained, her arms often tight against her sides like those Irish dancers that were popular a couple of decades ago or so. (Both kids are products of Catholic parochial education, like Joseph himself—who in eighth grade was voted Most Likely to Become a Priest.) Carpenter was also more vocally restrained, though she let loose once or twice—but, again, her character isn’t boisterous or outwardly demonstrative. (As we’ll see, Kayleen has deep emotional problems; her turmoil is inner.) I will also venture that Schreiber, with his greater stage experience as well as the range of film and TV characters he’s played, may have more of a repertoire of physical and emotional behaviors on which to draw than Carpenter, but she was never false or hesitant, and I never felt as if the two were in different plays.

Scott Ellis’s direction on Neil Patel’s minimalist set was strong on character and pacing; the eight scenes moved along quickly and without fussy scene changes. Patel devised a unit set for all the scenes, basically a lucite runway (there were spectators on the opposite side—“upstage,” if you will—of the platform) with white, modular walls at each end. Vincentelli called it “antiseptic,” but I find that overstated; I’d agree, though, with Stasio’s characterization of “austere.” Neutral is most apt. The edges of the platform, which was lighted from beneath, were a line of clear plastic boxes illuminated and filled with water from which the actors washed off old makeup between scenes. Costume changes were performed, as Joseph’s script demands, on stage in dim light, but not dark. (Actually, I was thinking that it might be more fun—not to say dramatically more impactful—to see the actors make their changes, the way Salieri changes before us in Amadeus. It’s not in the least significant in terms of the play; it’s just a druther. The serviceable costumes were designed by Jeff Mashie and the stark lighting was by Donald Holder.) Patel set drawers and cabinets into the end walls for the new clothes to come out of and the old ones to go into. Carpenter and Schreiber helped one another make the changes if necessary, and the few set pieces—almost always including a hospital bed or gurney—were rolled on from the wings and the actors set them for the new scene. Then, when everything was ready, if one actor had an entrance in the new vignette, she or he exited while the other took the correct position on stage. The new scene was then announced by a lighted projection on the rear wall pronouncing the characters’ ages and the title of the scene (“Thirteen: Limbo”; “Eighteen: Pink Eye”; “Twenty-three: Tooth and Nail”) It's a gimmick, mostly intended to cover the scene breaks, since the actors would still have had to make the changes and we’d otherwise have been staring at an empty stage for several minutes since there was virtually no set to shift.

Playwright Joseph has written some nicely speakable dialogue. Like Carpenter and Schreiber, he’s evoked the age progression credibly, capturing the awkwardness and bravado of youngsters as they test the sensitivities and pressure points of themselves and others. The actors were able to carry through their characterizations as well as they did because Joseph wrote actable dialogue. It’s not poetic, like Williams, or tough naturalism like Miller, but it sounded true and faithful to the characters. One on-line reviewer found this very attribute was a drawback because such “ineloquence, . . . though natural, lose[s] . . . potency as the play progresses.” I totally disagree: Joseph’s unaffected dialogue is one of the charms of the play. It’s also one of the characteristics of the script that underlies the aging of the characters—their speech grows up as they do. (Joseph is currently writing for a cable TV series, as I noted, and before he turned to playwriting, he was heading for a career as a screenwriter. TV and film writing may have informed this quality in his stage writing.) The playwright also has a nice way with a catch phrase: In the first scene, when Kayleen and Doug are eight, she keeps asking him, “Does it hurt?” and he replies perfunctorily, “A little,” as if he’d never say it did even if the pain were excruciating. Later, in many of the other vignettes, she asks him the same question, and gets a variation of his answer; in one scene, he asks the question. It is one way to remind us that these two have a connection—which, we’ll see, needs reinforcement.

All of this adds up to only half a show, though. The scenes are blackouts in that they have a beginning, but they have no end—they just stop. Nothing’s resolved, developed, or concluded. One scene doesn’t lead to another (even if you straighten them out chronologically) though previous history is acknowledged. (In the case of the only two scenes set in the same year, we get a bit of a flashback. The second of the vignettes actually takes place before the earlier one, so we see the set-up of the accident the results of which we’ve already witnessed. The first of the two scenes also makes mention of the circumstances we see played out in scene two. But these are only verbal links, not dramatic ones—and they’re pretty contrived to boot.) Joseph has said he’s looking at how a relationship might develop through shared disasters and hurts, but there’s no real relationship between Kayleen and Doug. They say there is one: they say they are each other’s “best friend” and Doug calls Kayleen his guardian angel who can “mend” his wounds—but they seldom really see each other outside the meetings every five years when one or the other—usually Doug—is injured. (Kind of ironically, Kayleen can’t heal Doug’s wounds, but the actress helps create them for her partner by doing his makeup for each new scene.) Doug says he looked for Kayleen when he came back from college, but he did see her father and they had friends or acquaintances in common, so how hard could it have been to find her? (We don’t know where the play is set, but the sense I got is that it’s a small city, not a huge metropolis—Joseph is from Cleveland—and both families had been lifelong residents.) Kayleen doesn’t seem to care much, between encounters, what Doug is up to. After one meeting in the hospital, after Doug had been hit by lightning, she says later she thought he’d died. She didn’t even bother to find out! Doug finds Kayleen as an 18-year-old holed up in her room at home and learns that she’s been cutting herself (and submitting to unwelcome sex because she thought it might stop her). He gets angry at her then, but then he doesn’t see her again for five more years. This is a developing relationship? These are people who care about one another?

Joseph recounted that his first intention for what became GPI was to write only a few scenes in which adult actors could work on playing children. I assume that he meant for them to be used in studios and classrooms, and not for public performance. (David Sheward of Back Stage, which calls itself “The Actor’s Resource,” directly identified the play as “material for scene-study class.”) The unfinished nature of the vignettes is perhaps the result of the playwright having never gone back when he changed his goal to complete the scenes by filling out the actual relationship between the two characters so that the actors would have somewhere to go. As they stand now, the episodes are much like technique exercises, the kind of thing Uta Hagen might have included in her Object Exercises which actors are meant to use to explore elements, what I used to call the building blocks, of a character or a scene (“Three Entrances”; “Immediacy”; “History”), but which alone aren’t stageworthy, any more than an artist’s exploratory brush strokes or media experiments are ready to be seen by viewers. In light of this acknowledgement, what I saw was sort of like one of those studies an artist does before working on a complete painting—a practice run of bits and pieces for the whole work. It’s tantalizing, maybe even promising—but unsatisfying.

There’s also no context for the quinquennial scenes we get to see. Joseph provides no information about the characters’ lives outside the medical facilities in which we meet them—at least not until near the end of the 80 minutes, and then only a few details. We don’t know why Doug and Kayleen behave the way they do or why Joseph tells us they need each other. Soloski precisely characterized the characters as “at once overdrawn and insufficiently inhabited” in the Voice and ascribed the fault largely to Joseph, but then added that “the actors can't quite overcome” the problem. I don’t see what Soloski could have expected Schreiber and Carpenter to have done with roles that end before they get anywhere. As a former actor myself, I can’t put any blame on them for that; not even Ellis can be answerable for not solving material that’s not in the script. As Back Stage’s Sheward attested, the production shows “what a strong director and cast can do with a skimpy play.”

The playwright’s theme, he says, is to explore how “primal forces” can drive us to extreme acts. Well, yes, if you get to arrange the actions and set up the forces at work! Joseph has made these two hurt themselves, either deliberately (Kayleen) or through reckless actions (Doug), and they keep repeating the behavior over and over. Then Joseph contrives to put them in each other’s paths at intervals even though there’s no dramatic reason for them to seek one another out. They hear about one another’s injuries, but they don’t seem to write each other during their separations, call one another, ask their friends about one another. There’s no contact for five years. (Like the location, we don’t know when the action takes place, but if the last scene is the year Joseph completed the play, it spans 1979 to 2009, mostly within the age of e-mail, Facebook, and Google.) I’m no psychologist, but my guess is that the way these two proceed untreated and without an intervention, one or both of them would have been dead before the end of the play. (In fact, I’d guess that if you really rode a bike off the roof of a school, even a two-story building, you’d more likely be killed or busted into a thousand pieces than merely get your face cut open. Then there’d have been no play at all!) Joseph got to make the characters come back each time and then repeat their behavior once again.

I can’t imagine what either of these two would be like—or how much of them would be left—after the last scene at 38. Could they even survive to 43? (Kayleen seems to have the more serious, deeper problem, and her troubles do increase in intensity—although it’s Doug who becomes more and more maimed as the years go by.) And that’s another failing here. The scenes have no ending, and neither does the play. (How could it? The last scene has no more of a conclusion than the first.) We learn little about Doug or Kayleen and they learn little about themselves. We know some factoids of their lives, but what do they want? What drives them to it? Of that we have no hint. Neither makes a move to resolve their own problems, much less the other’s. What do they take away? What do we take away? Do we assume they go on repeating their destructive behavior? Does anyone reach out to help them, to stop them? They don’t really help one another, despite what Doug believes—they feed off one another. It’s hardly a healthy association—or one with much of a future.

As I said, I don’t know Joseph’s work beyond GPI. Most of the reviewers praised his past writing and say they’re looking forward to the Broadway début of Bengal Tiger. I can say, from this one sample, that the dramatist has a quirky imagination—the only thing I know about Bengal Tiger is that the main character is the big cat!—and can write interesting and actable dialogue. As for whether he’s got real playwriting chops, I guess I’ll have to wait to find out. My dad used to say he disliked mixed grills because there were too many things on the plate and not enough of any of them. That’s what Gruesome Playground Injuries was like for me—a theatrical mixed grill, a tasting platter. It wasn’t unpleasant or distasteful—but it wasn’t filling.

[The 2ST run of Gruesome Playground Injuries, which started previews on 5 January and opened on 1 February, closed on 20 February. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo will open on 31 March at the Richard Rogers Theatre with Robin Williams as the title character under Moisés Kaufman’s direction. It had its world première at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, California, with Kevin Tighe, 10 May-7 June 2009; the production, also staged by Kaufman, moved to the Mark Taper Forum in L.A., 14 April -30 May 2010. The North Pool will première in a production of TheatreWorks at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto from 9 March to 3 April, and Houston’s Alley will début The Monster at the Door, 4-29 May. After a revival in January and February this year at the Public Theatre in Lewiston, Maine, Animals Out of Paper will be restaged by Amphibian Stage Productions at the Betty Sanders Theatre in Ft. Worth, Texas, 11-27 March.]


  1. The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust announced on Tuesday, 10 October 2013, that Rajiv Joseph is one of two recipients of the Steinberg Playwright "Mimi" Awards. (The other winner is Annie Baker, whose work includes 'The Flick,' 'Circle Mirror Transformation,' 'The Aliens,' and 'Body Awareness.') The "Mimi" Awards, which will be held on Monday, 18 November, at Lincoln Center, are presented every other year to honor the accomplishments of emerging American playwrights in the early or middle stages of their careers. Each recipient will be awarded a $50,000 prize.

    Jim Steinberg, a member of the board of the Steinberg Trust, said in a statement: "Both playwrights have produced extremely influential and successful work, which is an extraordinary accomplishment for two such young artists."