It's Gruesome, But Terrific

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The male lead blows out one of his eyes with a firecracker. The scene plays funny, for the most part.

The female lead slices her stomach open to get rid of everything that's been troubling her. As sad and horrific as this is, people laugh. And they're supposed to.

Playwright Rajiv Joseph is a fan of gore, but says that wasn't what inspired him to write Gruesome Playground Injuries, his two-actor, one-act play now on view at the Alley Theatre starring Selma Blair and Brad Fleischer

It was the relationship between the two characters that led to the gore, not the other way around, he insists. "By having injuries like this and having this sort of bloodletting on stage, it provides a unique lens to look at relationships and love and the kinds of drama that can exist over the course of a lifetime between two people," he tells Hair Balls.

And humor is necessary to this process, to give the audience a chance for relief from the extreme seriousness of the dark parts of this dark comedy, Joseph says.

Dramaturg Mark Bly, who also sat in on the interview, was the initial big champion of the play, taking it to Gregory Boyd, artistic director of the Alley. Bly also insists that it wasn't the gore per se, but the uniqueness of the way the two characters respond to each other that intrigued him. "This story is a love story but not any kind of a love story that I've ever encountered. I was immediately drawn to it and the fact that it defies any conventional notions of love stories," Bly says.

"This is about two people who have feelings toward each other but they're trying to find a vocabulary, a way of talking about it, and this extraordinary playwright has found this very unique vocabulary about scars and injuries and in the case of one of these individuals, he just happens to love her a bit more at different points in time than she loves him and he needs to get her attention and his way of getting her attention is to signal through the scars and injuries his love."

Joseph rejects any classification of his work as optimistic or pessimistic. "For all the injury and all the unhappiness and all the missed chances, these are still two people who love each other and instantly connect with one another and even at this point where he has determined that she will not touch him, that he's done, they still can exist together in their memories. Their lives are at this point where they may never end up together, but their lives together have given each other meaning. There's something important in that. There's memories worth rekindling. It is what it is."

He also rejects any question about why these two people lose track of each other for five years at a time.

"The truth of it is that notions of the Internet and cell phones don't matter to these two people. Technology does not keep people closer together. People still fall in and out of each other's lives even though they could Google each other," Joseph says.

Joseph attended all the rehearsals and calls the experience collaborative among the people involved -- the actors, director Rebecca Taichman and Bly -- all of which led to some rewriting, especially in one section entitled "The Blue Raspberry Dip scene."

"I rewrote it many many times. The gist of it was always the same. This was a very critical scene, the second-to-the-last scene chronologically in their lives. On average each scene of this play was 11 pages long. And this one was twice that long for no good reason. Mark made a good point when he said you have a play with such equal parts...you might want to think about why does it take so long to get to the end of the scene.' I always overwrite."

Another point of crucial input, Joseph says, was when Bly sent him a note, which he passed on to the cast: "The characters have to resist the temptation to be rational and reasonable." Bly says the play wouldn't work if Kayleen and Doug thought about things. "The play would become glacial and slowed down."

The plays scenes are presented out of chronological order. At first, that was just how Joseph started writing them. "Then I saw the kind of dramaturgical necessity to that. It's useful to see what happens to them before they do. It's useful for the the audience to be sometimes a step ahead and sometimes a step behind them."

Gruesome Playground Injuries runs through Sunday, November 15 on the Neuhaus Stage at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue. For tickets, go to www.alleytheatre.org or call 713-220-5700.

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