Reviewed by George Basler
Emotional wounds and physical scars are on vivid display in Rajiv Joseph’s compelling two-character play Gruesome Playground Injuries.
KNOW Theatre’s production, being streamed through April 30, is just as compelling, thanks to bravura performances by Jessica Nogaret and Joshua Sedelmeyer as two needy people drawn together by their self-destructive tendencies.
The American-born Joseph is best known for Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo. The Iraq War play was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and starred Robin Williams in a New York production.
Gruesome Playground Injuries traces the bittersweet, three-decade friendship between Doug and Kayleen, who first meet in the nurse’s office of their Catholic elementary school. She has stomach trouble; he has just ridden his bicycle off the roof of the school. Their relationship unfolds in eight separate scenes done in non-chronological order that shows them at ages eight, 23, 13, 28, 18, 33, 23, and 38.
While the approach is unorthodox and challenging, it is effective in gradually revealing the characters’ complicated relationship. Scenes veer from dark humor to emotional rawness as Joseph builds the intensity level. The playwright has a real skill for writing dialogue that is both natural and rhythmic.
KNOW’s production is suitably intimate and austere. The simple setting and effective lighting keep your attention focused squarely on the two characters. Bernie Sheredy’s tight direction draws nuanced performances from Nogaret and Sedelmeyer. Jeff Tagliaferro and Scott Fisher unobtrusively recorded and edited the production and added a few selective closeups that heightened the play’s intimacy.
Most importantly, Nogaret and Sedelmeyer play well off each other. They make you care deeply about Doug and Kayleen as they move from childhood to adolescence to adulthood.
Doug is an adrenaline junkie with anger issues kept hidden under a goofy surface. Kayleen’s wounds, by contrast, are all on the inside, and Nogaret is especially effective as the psychologically stunted Kayleen. The character can be brutally sarcastic (she repeatedly chides Doug for his “retarded” misadventures) and painfully vulnerable as childhood stomach aches give way to adult alcohol abuse and breakdowns. Nogaret reveals both facets of the character with great skill.
Sedelmeyer has a difficult role. Doug is a complex mixture of recklessness, anger and tenderness. Even as he spirals downward, Doug reaches out to Kayleen with a compassion that is pure and heartfelt. An actor needs to convey all these conflicting emotions, and Sedelmeyer does a first-rate job doing so.
The play has some gaps. Joseph never clearly defines what motivates Doug’s self-destructive tendencies. He obviously has issues, but what are the reasons for these issues?
The eight scenes also have the tendency to be repetitive, with each one recycling the characters’ emotional insecurities. Moreover, you have to accept the conceit that the characters only see each other every five years under extreme circumstances.
Still, Gruesome Playground Injuries is a play with real emotional resonance that explores the complexity of human relationships. In a very real sense, it is a love story, but not one with the easy wrap-up of a happy ending. Nothing is that simple in Joseph’s world. His play provides the opportunity for tour de force acting, and the Binghamton-based KNOW makes the most of this opportunity. Nogaret and Sedelmeyer give performances that stay with you.
TO SEE THE PERFORMANCE: Gruesome Playground Injuries is being streamed through April 30. Tickets for on-demand viewing are $20; purchase online at www.showtix4u.com/event-details/50537.