Friday, May 30, 2014

“Gruesome Playground Injuries” is a Hard Pill to Swallow by M.R. Hunter

Rajiv Joseph's dark romantic comedy is a typical boy meets girl story with a twist: every defining moment boy spends with girl is marked by his injuries requiring trips to the school nurse's office, later a hospital, until he ends up incapable of bringing on more self-harm. The relationship that spans 30 years between them is as gauzy as bandages, wobbly as crutches, consistent as an IV drip and as constrictive as a wheelchair. They connect on the physical plane of pain and act as salves to their emotional hurts brought on by their choices and by each other.

It's an interesting concept but the lack of verisimilitude in the artificial setup undermines this grisly courtship with heavy-handed symbolism and an unsatisfying lack of resolve or epiphany. Further exacerbating the superficial appeal is the playwright's inscrutable demand of setting up scenes in a non-sequential order. The injuries, primarily inflicted by the white knight's brave but foolish boyhood antics such as jumping off the school roof on his bike or lighting firecrackers too close to his face are uncomfortably juxtaposed by mortal accidents like being struck by lightning.

This irony is lost in the tenuous cohesion of a timeline connecting these incidents by etching an age and a theme onto a small chalkboard. Towards the final two scenes, Joseph is forced by his own hand to collapse the chronology into a final conclusion riddled by query, vague sentiments and a lack of closure both for the characters point of view and the audience. It is frustrating because there is a lot of promise to the premise too orchestrated perhaps to escape its conceit.

The counterbalance to Doug's war wounds is the delicate but guarded heroine Kayleen whose home life is internalized in stomach pains signaling her self-doubt, anger and depression, temporarily buoyed when she begins cutting herself. Doug's gruesome injuries are brought on by living life fearlessly while Kayleen's are imposed by her own personal demons, namely fear. The symbolism is about as starkly visible as the captivating clinical, gleaming white minimalist set. Doug and Kayleen's impairments deflect from what I assume must be the playwright's intended message: we are all wounded, scarred and broken. How we go about collecting our damages is sometimes life happening to us in our mortal vulnerability or our mortal vulnerability determining our happenstance in life. 

Rogue Machine's seventh season two-hander launcher tries mightily to offset the play's weaknesses with a solid pair of believable actors, a smart set design by David Mauer and sharp direction by Larissa Kokernot. The production value is high and hides much of the inherent flaws of the script, but the briskly paced 85 minutes, no intermission idea piece winds up seeming more like an actor's class scene work exercise than a fully realized show. Even the transitions are laden with deep breathing ala the Alexander Technique whereby the actors face each other and inhale the "moment." It comes across as contrived, insecure, superfluous and frustrating.

Nevertheless, Rogue Machine's worst shows are still quality, well-executed, creative collaborations deserving of kudos. The fault lies in the script and it is understandable why this play was chosen based on the success of Rajiv Joseph's Pulitzer Prize nominated "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo." Frankly, Rogue Machine and the duo Jules Willcox and Brad Fleischer did the best they could with a rather sleeper story most will forget having seen it a year from now. Joseph dropped the ball much more than they did because he clearly had a novel premise but never found the heart, the high stakes or the humanity to make an audience care.

Sounds heartless but as the lights go down, the overall takeaway is the ponderous "why?" Why should Doug and Kayleen's unique relationship matter to me when I walk outside the theater? Why am I no different than I was 85 minutes ago? Why am I unmoved when all the technical and performative elements were there? Plays need more than just a fresh approach or a peculiar posit to serve them. They must align creative outpouring with pathos and emotion if they are to have any impact or leave an impression at all. Oddly enough, the play may find its heart in the right medium as a screenplay. Visual images related in listless dialogue could be shown cinematically with more drama such as Doug climbing a telephone pole in the rain than his regaling it onstage where the image falls flat. There's serious potential to be explored but the limitations of theater turns this into a snow globe art piece. Break apart the story into showing rather than telling could be just what the doctor ordered. For now, it's a hard pill to swallow.  

"Gruesome Playground Injuries"
Runs through July 14
Sat @ 5pm; Sun @ 7pm; Mon @ 8pm
Rogue Machine in Theatre Theater
5041 Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA  90019
Tickets: $30
PH: 855-585-5185

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