Everybody Hurts in Theatre Exile's "Gruesome Playground Injuries"

If your Thanksgiving turkey is as undercooked as this play, you’ve got a problem.

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 23, 2011

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Cut to the chase: Kayleen (Charlotte Ford) and Doug (Keith Conallen) perpetually hurt themselves.

If your Thanksgiving turkey is as undercooked as Theatre Exile’s Gruesome Playground Injuries, you’ve got a problem.

More of an idea for a play than a fully realized drama, Rajiv Joseph’s underdeveloped, 90-minute play focuses on Kayleen (Charlotte Ford) and Doug (Keith Conallen), who are misfits on the fringes of society. They meet as 8-year-olds in the infirmary at their parochial school and over the span of several decades are repeatedly reunited by an injury of some kind.

Kayleen’s injuries are self-inflicted (she cuts herself). So are Doug’s but he isn’t as direct. He prefers instead to put himself in dangerous situations with predictable results. You don’t need to be Freud to deduce that each is trying to relieve their emotional suffering through physical pain.

Joseph constructs his play in eight short vignettes. In the second vignette, we encounter the pair at the age of 23. In the third they’re 13, the fourth, 28. The alternating five-year intervals give the play an intriguing flow, especially in Director Deborah Block’s production, which records each vignette on an old-fashioned baseball scoreboard as if each encounter were an inning in a ball game. The ninth inning is never played, and there is a general sense of incompleteness about not only the story but the characters as well.

Ford and Conallen are both superb actors but Joseph gives them little to work with. Kayleen and Doug are so underdeveloped that they register as little more than walking medical charts, defined almost entirely by their injuries.

Block’s productions are rarely visually dazzling spectacles and the production’s design is plain and functional. Instead of technical wizardry, Block’s productions have always focused on the human element. The approach serves her well in this case, and her sensitive direction almost rescues Joseph’s partial play. Although Ford and Conallen struggle to define Kayleen and Doug as individuals, under Block’s caring direction we do eventually gain a sense of their connection to one another.

In the play’s one authentically moving scene, Kayleen informs Doug that although she didn’t want to, she had sex with her boyfriend. She also reveals that she’s been cutting her thighs with a paper cutter. He asks her to cut him and sitting next to her on the bed in his boxer shorts she obliges. We expect to be horrified, but instead Conallen and Ford create one of the season’s most erotic and bizarrely touching moments. Sitting there vulnerable and bleeding, Doug and Kayleen are as emotionally connected as two people can be. It is a closeness that stems from a shared pain, and we see in their eyes that despite their platonic relationship they have achieved a level of intimacy far greater than any sexual act could provide.

One scene, however, doesn’t a great play make. Joseph clearly has some promise as a playwright (his Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist), but in Playground his talent is only partially evident.

Through Dec. 4. $25-$32. Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater, 2111 Sansom St. 215.218.4022. theatreexile.org

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