Gruesome Playground Injuries, Rajiv Joseph's world-premiere play that opened last week at the Alley Theatre, is certainly compelling. Both the writing and the young playwright, who stood in a corner of the Neuhaus Stage lobby after Saturday night's show, have all the trappings of fame, as they are beautifully brooding and quirky. The two-person cast — Selma Blair as Kayleen, the psychologically damaged female character, and Brad Fleischer as Doug, the physically damaged male character — is beautiful to watch. And Rebecca Taichman's thoughtful direction, playing out on Riccardo Hernandez's creepy but lovely, minimalist set, complete with enormous tanks of water that turn to blood, is evocative, even sometimes mesmerizing.
So why isn't the "deep" (as one audience member put it) psychological tale of Kayleen and Doug's relationship more moving? Why does it get so hard to sit through the almost hour-and-a-half, intermission-less play as it skips through the development of the relationship between these two damaged souls?
The story starts out when Doug and Kayleen first meet in grade school. They both are suffering in the nurse's office. She's got a stomachache, and he's injured himself after somehow managing to ride his bicycle off a roof, pretending he's Evel Knievel. In this strange meeting, the damaged meet the damaged, and these characters forge a bond of weird dimensions. He's boastful about his foolish act. She thinks he's ridiculous. He wants to get all up in her face. She wants to retreat to a corner. Still, through the pains of her hurting stomach, she is compelled to look at him, to touch him. She calls him "stupid," but that doesn't stop her from wanting him to uncover his injuries so that she can see them, even heal them.
What follows is a series of hopscotching scenes that jump back and forth in time over the years of their relationship. Each meeting is marked by some sort of injury. We meet them at 23 when Doug's blinded an eye with a firecracker, when they're 18 and Doug has pinkeye, when they're 28 and Doug's been struck by lightning, when they're 33 and Kayleen's in the hospital. Each time, Kayleen lays her hands on Doug's injuries and he believes she has healed him. Her injuries are more internal. But they too get revealed both literally and figuratively, slowly, over the years. What these two see in each other grows into a sort of mutual obsession of the self-destructive, each mirroring back to the other a deep impulse toward self-annihilation.
In between the scenes, all sorts of theatrical devices are at work. The characters change costumes on stage in Christopher Akerlind's evocative half light. Jill BC DuBoff has created a series of sound effects that include all kinds of heartbeats — everything from pounding horror-film thumping to womb-like sounds throb through the theater. Honestly, it's hard to know exactly what to make of all this. The actors dressing, the strange sounds, the dreamy light — it's all interesting and clearly supposed to move us somehow. But it doesn't.
And we learn so little about the characters outside of their damage, it's hard to care for them very much. They are little more than walking wounds. We learn what Doug does for a living. In one scene he's a claims adjuster (the irony is intended), and in another, he drives a Zamboni — much is made of the beautifully clean and symbolically heavy ice he creates. But otherwise, all we know is that he's obsessed with Kayleen for some unknown reason and that he has a great family, which doesn't quite fit psychologically, given his bent for dangerous activities. About Kayleen, we know only that Dad is a jerk. Otherwise, she remains an enigma.
Thus, no matter how lovely the actors are, how quietly true the direction, how striking the set, or even how theatrically smart the writing is with its jump-about scenes and its slowly unfurling bits of information, these damaged characters inspire little more than the sort of fascination that might come with driving upon a freeway wreck. You want to look, but when you do, you aren't likely to feel anything beyond a brief and empty sense of horror.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Houston.