Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuries is a cut above

Jamie Wollrab works in Los Angeles as a director, actor and acting coach, but he grew up in Boulder and loves Colorado. "My family lives here," he says, "and they don't often get to see my work." That's why he and a couple of professional colleagues decided to bring Rajiv Josef's Gruesome Playground Injuries to the Dairy Center for the Arts. During the process of mounting the play, they've been staying in the mountains, planning trips to Red Rocks and Estes Park, and eating at Lucile's. "Boulder is amazing," Wollrab says. "It's home for me."

The play details the strange, yearning and ambivalent thirty-year relationship between two people who first meet at the age of eight in a school infirmary: Doug has messed up his face; Kayleen has stomach problems. The thread running through their relationship and binding them together concerns injury, hurt and a tentative whisper of the possibility of healing. He's a daredevil and adrenaline junkie with a powerful self-destructive streak that has him picking fights, climbing a telephone pole or standing on a roof in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. Kayleen's health problems are brooding and psychological: She has stomachaches, she cuts herself. As the play unfolds, we learn a few ambiguous facts about her background. Doug loves Kayleen and Kayleen loves Doug, but they never manage to love each other at quite the same time.

The action unfolds in a series of brief and non-sequential scenes. We see the protagonists as teenagers, as young adults, as teens again, as more mature adults. Helpfully, the actors write the characters' ages and the title of each segment in chalk on the floor so that we can not only tell where we are at any given moment, but have a map of crossed-out ages and titles that lets us see the play's structure and tells us where we've been.

And where is that? This eighty-minute play feels like a wisp of something, but it's an evocative wisp. Driving home afterward, my brainwaves felt slightly altered, meditative. Playwright Josef's later play, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a Pulitzer finalist that received a strong production at Denver's Edge Theatre last year, shows an expansive and outward-reaching imagination. Gruesome Playground Injuries has some of the same daring, only it's quietly inward.

There's also humor in this script, and insight. The characterizations are touching but unsentimental. Josef has accurately caught a kid's fascination with bruises, scars and broken bones, the desire to explore and touch an owie. "Does it hurt?" is a continuing refrain; the changing answers reveal a lot. Both actors convey the characters' different ages with a light touch, and really do manage to seem like authentic kids and teenagers without resorting to the usual obvious signifiers. Wollrab plays Doug, the lively, jump-around member of the duo, a passionate and endearing shlub. Kayleen could easily be the kind of boringly neurotic and self-obsessed female we've encountered in so many self-pitying memoirs, but she isn't. She's calmly understated most of the time. Laila Ayad plays the role with a beautiful gentleness and control — except for the times when she erupts in rage and pain or spits at Doug to shut the fuck up. I liked the naturalistic tone maintained throughout, but every now and then, particularly during emotional moments, Ayad's voice became so quiet I couldn't hear what she said.

The production, directed by Eric Hunicutt, is clean and tight, with interesting music; a well-designed set defined by a set of silver panels and furnished with not much more than two hard beds, lights and a wastebasket; costumes that hint at the characters' ages without ever becoming obtrusive and obvious. But while the actors shifted scenery and changed costumes between segments with fine concentration and control, creating meditative ellipses, the changes went on too long, and at these moments I found my attention drifting. Too bad; Wollrab's effort deserves your full attention.

He hopes to bring a production to Boulder every year. "I see plays in London, New York and L.A.," he says. "And it's not often that Boulder gets a work that's newly published." With Gruesome Playground Injuries, he's definitely brought us a breath of something fresh and new.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman