In an early scene of Gruesome Playground Injuries, one character asks another to stick her fingers in his eye socket, which has been blown out from an exploded firework. This queasy moment is set against the starkest possible set by Neil Patel; the flooring is slick, glowing, and pale blue — like a hockey rink after a Zamboni clean — and the only setpiece is a roving hospital bed, offering no environmental comfort to the two actors who must bleed and double over in pain for an hour and a half with no intermission. Between the quarts of fake blood spilled on stage and the austere quality of the character’s surroundings, it’s clear that Rajiv Joseph’s play is intended to cause some amount of discomfort. Unfortunately, the majority of the unease you may feel when watching Injuries is the friction that comes when two actors never quite gel with their material.
Here’s the thing about two-person plays: They are difficult to get right. Almost always. The script has to be rich enough to sustain hours spent diving into a singular relationship without exhausting the premise. For an actor, having only one other person to respond to and create a relationship with means that you are constantly sprinting through a marathon. But when the two-person play is done right, you can feel sparks shooting between the actors on stage — they create a forcefield of intimacy that’s intoxicating. See Kathy Bates and Anne Pitoniak’s legendary performances in ‘night, Mother in 1983 (for which playwright Marsha Norman won the Pulitzer), or Mike Nussbaum and Joe Mantegna in the original production of Mamet’s A Life in the Theater. When the going is good, it’s Godot. But when something doesn’t completely fit with the writing or the chemistry, every pockmark shows. Consider the overwrought melodrama that was Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig in A Steady Rain (Ben Brantley called the play “a small, wobbly pedestal on which two gods of the screen may stand.”) Even boldfaced names could not save that show from its soggy imperfections. Two-character dramas are too naked to be faked; it’s all out there, and baby, we can see it.
So there’s something funny, then, about Gruesome Playground Injuries being a hobbled production considering its subject matter — two lifelong friends who both suffer from various maladies, including broken bones, self-mutilation, IBS and tooth loss. The play itself is wounded before it even begins, because it simply doesn’t give its actors enough to go on.
Joseph is only 36 and, as of this week anyway, the toast of the Broadway community — he has only been putting on productions for six years after scooping up an NYU MFA at 30, and already one of his plays (Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo, a magical realist take on the Iraq situation) is headed to the Great White Way with Robin Williams as the star. The Ohio native spent three years in the Peace Corps in Senegal after college, and last year, was a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize. He’s a star, and justifiably so — though that doesn’t mean that every play he writes is a winner. But theater momentum is theater momentum, and it’s not surprising that Second Stage would jump on Joseph’s success and produce Injuries off-Broadway as his big-stage debut nears. It’s simply disappointing that the play isn’t better.
Doug and Kayleen, played by Pablo Schreiber (Nick Sobotka of The Wire) and Jennifer Carpenter (Debra on Dexter and the former Ms. Michael C. Hall) have been pals since the second grade, when they wind up in the nurse’s office together. Her constant pain is more internal — she vomits off and on throughout the 30-year span of the show and cuts up her own legs with a razorblade, the results of a loveless childhood and social anxiety. Doug is the daredevil, climbing telephone poles and jumping off of rooftops, which result in the empty eye socket, a steady limp, a temporary coma, and a lot of garish scars. Neither character is too smart — they are subpar suburban kids with emotional problems that are too complex to express outside of physical symptoms — but they find subtle ways to heal each other. Doug feels consoled by Kayleen’s touch, while Kayleen, despite remaining prickly and dismissive throughout the show, thrives on Doug’s attention and desire to share in her internal anguish by injuring himself in the flesh. Mutual masochism is nothing if not an alluring set-up for a character study; we love to see hurt people hurting.
The way the actions play out, however, feels more like an MFA exercise than a fully-formed show. The pair flash in and out of non-linear time periods of their lives marked by injuries, and never leave the stage. Instead, they apply blood to their wounds and strip down to change clothes in front of the audience, and use basins of water hidden in the stage floors to wash their hands of each previous scene. The cleansing process is exciting for a few beats, but after an hour or so, both the relationship and the time it takes to scrub off fake gashes and clear away buckets of vomit begins to feel tedious.
In an ideal two-person drama, the characters need to communicate effortlessly; they need to move as an organism. Schreiber and Carpenter, both usually so gifted, make it look like work. Joseph’s script (which may very well have been an MFA assignment!) may be the culprit — it is a tall order to extend a clever metaphor into real-life emotional resonance. The cuts and scrapes that Doug and Kayleen display are clearly standing in for deeper mental calamity, but the show never gets past that first revelation. You can see Doug and Kayleen’s blood, but you can’t feel a pulse. Here’s hoping that Joseph’s turn on Broadway hits a little harder — at least enough to cause a bruise.