Mike Brooks & Leah Roberts in Gruesome Playground
Photo courtesy of Theatre [502].

Gruesome Playground Injuries

By Rajiv Joseph

Directed By Gil Reyes

Reviewed by Keith Waits

Entire contents copyright 2012 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

I would hesitate to ever describe any artistic enterprise as “perfect.” That there is a range of subjective response from a spectrum of viewers is reason enough to discount such a descriptive. Yet there are times when a particular achievement seems to so fully realize its intentions that one has to search to find significant fault. This production of Gruesome Playground Injuries, at least on opening night, seemed to be such an animal.

The two-character comedy utilizes an unorthodox structure that is often called non-linear; it strikes me as a misnomer. Two separate chronological and linear sequences of scenes alternate back and forth, revealing a singular relationship between a man and woman that is entirely in contrast to any conventional notion of a love story, yet details a more important and vital human connection.

Doug and Kayleen are first seen as schoolmates, and then throughout the next 30-odd years suffering simultaneous maladies. His are the result of foolhardy and reckless actions in and out of sports; hers grow out of deep-seated anxieties. One sequence follows the youthful relationship while the other picks up their adult reunions, the two dovetailing in a conclusion satisfying for both its feeling and restraint. 

Mike Brooks, one of the founders of Theatre [502], has of late been concentrating on directing. But his re-entry into acting is a welcome thing indeed, as he brings a ferocious drive and energy to Doug that is startling. He is very funny, but also illuminates the deeper motivations with clarity. As his counterpart, Leah Roberts’ work falls well within the high expectations we have come to place on her. So if her work does not surprise as much as Mr. Roberts, it is only because her remarkably consistent skill and determination are more immediately familiar. The two display good chemistry and are playful enough in their interactions to make us envious of the good time they seem to be having onstage.

All of which is underscored during the transitions between scenes, which, even with costume changes, are enacted entirely onstage by the actors. No stage hands appear, and Mr. Brooks’ various applications of bruises, missing teeth, and other injuries are assisted by Ms. Roberts. Such staging would seem to undermine the emotional impact of the scenes; but, in fact, it has quite the opposite effect. Director Gil D. Reyes even catalogs the changes in the program – further calling attention to the device – going for broke in highlighting the theatricality in a way that displays certain confidence in his players to immediately discover the emotional core of each scene when the transition is over. Overlaid with an exceptionally thoughtful soundtrack of contemporary songs (credit to Sound Designer Scott Anthony), these moments in-between function, collectively, as an important element of the storytelling.

The result is a fascinating exploration of human relationships that far outstrips the exhausted romantic comedy format that is so common. Doug and Kayleen share a connection that overcomes adversity and long periods where they are out of communication with each other. There is an emotional understanding that is only achieved over time and that they themselves only fully appreciate in the play’s final moments. It doesn’t save them in the artificial manner of cliché and stereotype. But it does manage to help them work through the bumps in the road and keep persevering, which is a salvation we can all recognize.

Gruesome Playground Injuries

August 3-10

Theatre [502] in The Victor Jory Theater

Actors Theatre of Louisville

Third & Main Streets

Louisville, KY 40202