Los Angeles Theater Review: GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES (Rogue Machine Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on June 3, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


More of a writing exercise than a fleshed-out drama, Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries begins with an intriguing premise, but sputters to a halt when we realize that this much-hyped “Pulitzer-finalist” has written himself into a corner. Flip-flopping throughout a 30-year time span, the play is constructed as a series of meetings between two self-injurious soul mates, Doug and Kayleen, who meet as 8-year-olds in the office of the school nurse: She has acute stomach problems and he has a serious head wound from riding his bike off of the roof. The injuries and ailments these two suffer for the next 85 minutes aren’t always physical—she has relationship woes and both are eternal misfits—but the wounds, whether self-inflicted or by accident, are what bind these BFFs as both have trouble connecting and are incapable of the love affair they were destined to have.

But wounds do not a play make. As the two meet up in infirmaries or hospital rooms to discuss their latest miseries, he occasionally comes on to her while she reacts with mortification at his advances, and we see them captivated by each other’s damage (vomit, gashes, pinkeye, a torn Achilles tendon), but we never get a sense of what drives their impulses; he’s accident-prone and she cuts herself. He Jules Willcox and Brad Fleischer in GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES at Rogue Machine Theatreremains somehow optimistic and feisty while she slides deeper and deeper into despair. But nothing ever comes of it.

Director Larissa Kokernot found a way to link the scenes together by having her game performers aid each other with make-up and costume changes, rearrange the set, eyeball each other, and center themselves before the next scene. Scenic designer David Mauer has the audience at Rogue Machine Theatre sitting in a thrust configuration well above the action as if we are observing a surgery. Unfortunately, the play becomes as clinical as the white set.

At first, I was quite excited by Brad Fleischer’s Doug, whose 8-year-old self thought life-threatening Evel Knievel stunts were the coolest thing ever, and Jules Willcox’ Kayleen, whose doppelganger is The Addams Family’s Wednesday. The embodiment of childlike wonder mixed with the pain of being an outsider was a wonder to behold. But the sympathy I had developed for the two characters dissipated somewhere around the halfway mark when Kayleen visits Doug in a hospital where he lays in a coma after being struck by lightning. Kokernot and crew begin to take Jules Willcox and Brad Fleischer in GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES at Rogue Machine Theatre.things too seriously and laboriously, losing the much-needed humor we got from the characters as youngsters. By the end I was wholly unresponsive to this unique love story.

In his review of Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Stage and Cinema’s Harvey Perr pondered why, with all of its ferocious writing, the show, at its core, felt empty. He concluded that Joseph entered a danger zone without going anywhere near the edge of the cliff. Bengal Tiger, he says, “leads us into dark corners, but, like all bourgeois art, it pulls us back just at the moment when we are about to fall into the pit.” That’s what Gruesome Playground Injuries does over and over until we are left with naught but ennui.

Jules Willcox and Brad Fleischer in Rajiv Joseph's GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES at Rogue Machine Theatre.

photos by John Flynn

Gruesome Playground Injuries
Rogue Machine, 5041 W. Pico Blvd
Sat at 5, Sun at 7, Mon at 8
scheduled to end on July 14, 2014
EXTENDED to August 4, 2014
for tickets, call 855-585-5185 or visit www.roguemachinetheatre.com

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