by Courtney Meaker
Romantic comedies don’t really do it for me. Boy meets a girl (or boy meets boy, or girl meets girl). They’re perfect for each other but can’t be together. Trials and tribulations of a ridiculous sort happen (usually involving a large deception one of them can’t see past), while the sarcastic best friend says, “Just get over it.” They do in a cute way. And they skip into the sunset, bubbly and better off having accomplished something over the past hour and a half that leads the audience to believe they will be together for a long time.
Popcorn eaten, soda drank, we leave feeling nothing more than a stomach ache from the mixture of salt and sugar, never to think about this story ever again. Because we’ve seen it. We’ve seen it so many times we can finish the lines or guess the next plot point before the story even hints at it.
Azeotrope’s Gruesome Playground Injuries (through August 11 at The Little Theatre;tickets) does not fit the mold. Told moving backward and forward in time the dynamic story unfolds with glimpses at the brief self-destructions of two people who want to fit together from age 8 to 38 but can’t seem to smoosh into a couple without creating more scars. With only two actors (Richard Nguyen Sloniker and Amanda Zarr) and a phenomenal script by Rajiv Joseph, director Desdemona Chiang creates a truly compelling night of theatre, ending with the desire to see more of the story.
Both characters are self-destructive to the point of self-harm, but in tragically different ways. Kayleen is a cutter with a stomach issue (she vomits a lot) and a talent for lusting after or genuinely loving Doug, but unwilling to let herself have him. Doug can’t stop hurting himself in much more creative, but seemingly unintentional ways, always seeking to make Kayleen happy though the two are never dating or a couple, but describe each other as best friends. Their betrayals are smart and nuanced emerging slowly, eating at each other years after the incident.
Sloniker, as the rambunctious Doug — who can’t exist in the world without marring his body through some form of stupidity (like blowing up his face with a firecracker) — wields his character with clear force and intensity. His transformation from hyperactive boy with passion for a girl into a man who calms to surrendering his desire for her is utterly captivating.
But where the hell did Amanda Zarr come from? Los Angeles, according to the program, but I sincerely hope she sticks around. With subtlety she delivers a heart-wrenching performance as Kayleen ending in one of the saddest monologues I’ve ever seen about why we do the things we do and why we can’t just let ourselves be happy (we don’t fucking know).
In The Little Theatre (formerly WET’s space) Deanna Zibello designed a set that morphs through an arrangement of curtains into various hospital-type settings. The choreography of these moments creates a consistently fresh space with only small awkward bumps in the machinery.
Gruesome Playground Injuries is another strong piece of theatre from Azeotrope (they produced Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train last year at ACT to wild acclaim). Hopefully, the run will succeed even without the marketing of ACT behind it. The talent of Chiang, Sloniker, and Zarr should not be wasted on small houses.