by Gemma Wilson
“Girls don’t get scars,” says eight-year-old Doug, in the opening scene of Rajiv Joseph’s spare two-hander Gruesome Playground Injuries. He’s talking to Kayleen, also eight, and his current companion in the school nurse’s office. Doug busted his face riding his bike off the roof; Kayleen has an ever-present tummy ache, because she “has bad thoughts,” according to her mother.
This is the beginning of a friendship that could hardly be described as beautiful—tragic, elemental, broken, maybe, but not beautiful. Both Doug and Kayleen have a need to hurt themselves, but for very different reasons and in very different ways, and this shared craving tethers them together through the years.
After meeting them at the age of eight, we jump around in time through the next 30 years in Doug and Kayleen’s friendship, from scene to scene, super-titled by the age and injury that defines it. Age 23: Eye blown out. Age 13: The Limbo. Doug is a reckless daredevil who can’t seem to stop injuring himself, Kayleen’s wounds are harder to see.
Obviously, this is not a linear story. We’re not following Doug and Kayleen through life, watching their relationship grow and change and blossom. It’s a colder examination than that, trimmed of any emotional fat. These are the moments that matter for these two, and not a moment is wasted.
Gruesome Playground Injuries is the latest production from Azeotrope, the fledgling theatre company that made waves with its 2012 production of Jesus Hopped the A Train, following a well-received 2010 debut with Adam Rapp’s controversial Red Light Winter.
Azeotrope founder and co-artistic director Richard Nguyen Sloniker has become a fixture on the Seattle theatre scene, and we’re lucky to have him. As Doug and Kayleen, Sloniker and the L.A.-based Amanda Zarr navigate the complicated technicalities of the script gracefully—playing ages 8 through 38 with subtlety and minimal shtick—no small feat.
Sloniker’s Doug is as guileless as Zarr’s Kayleen is guarded, and under the nimble direction of Azeotrope founder and co-artistic director Desdemona Chiang, Gruesome Playground Injuries packs an emotional sucker punch. And I mean that in the best possible way.
As important as the scenes is onstage choreography that happens between them, as Sloniker and Zarr change clothes, wipe away blood and re-divide the small playing space by changing the configuration of the many curtains on metal rods that criss-cross the ceiling. (The clever, clinical set design is by Deanna Zibello.)
Just as this isn’t a linear story, it also isn’t a love story. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. There may have been romance for Doug and Kayleen in another life, but in this go-round they are never in the same place at the same time. What they share is that intense intimacy reserved only for the people who know your darkest, most painful secrets. It’s an essential relationship, and one these two rely on, sometimes without realizing it. But it isn’t enough.
The brisk evening (clocking in at under 90 minutes, no intermission) can feel a little flat at times, but blame for that lies with the playwright. Joseph, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his 2011 Broadway play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, has pared down this story a little too much. Since we only see Doug and Kayleen at pivotal, painful moments in their lives, it’s hard to understand why it is they care so deeply about one another. Yes, it’s trimmed of the fat, but it’s that emotional fat that defines relationships, the small, seemingly insignificant interactions that comprise a shared life. Even so, I teared up once or twice, watching these two need one another so intensely, but fail to connect. Blood may be gory, but disappointment like that is gruesome.
Gruesome Playground Injuries is running through Aug. 11 at The Little Theatre.