A modern sad-funny tale of a love that fails to launch, Rajiv Joseph’s play Gruesome Playground Injuries ranks as a small but, in its way, potent American story. A finely observed slice of lower-middle-class Gen X life, Joseph moves us back and forth through the decades as his two characters Kayleen and Doug navigate from childhood to adulthood in an intimate friendship that never quite makes it to romance.
Though their opposites-attract frisson provides plenty of laughs, Joseph moves beyond Saturday Night Live territory with Kayleen’s backstory, which gradually begins to define her and her potential in life. She is so well-drawn, Joseph could have — should have — dispensed with some of the overdone details of her dysfunction. She is a patently real character without a (literal) twist of the knife.
Similarly, although Doug’s accident-proneness starts as a fun and comic hook, Joseph, again unnecessarily, takes it one step too far by the end of the play. And we see so much of what ails Kayleen, why not more of what ails Doug? If Joseph is trying to make a statement about why they each self-harm, it only half works since Kayleen is the only character we really explore. Sure, Doug isn’t exactly a still water, but no man returning to Kayleen through so many decades could be that devoid of an inner landscape.
Well-matched in this two-actor show, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey and Tim Getman connect with convincing affection and frustration and, in Doug’s case, forbearance. He is waiting for the girl and then the woman and his refusal to try and control her may be at once his greatest virtue and his downfall.
Getman delivers his gentle, irrepressible Doug with great comic timing and a nice undercurrent of growing cynicism. His only weak moments come with Joseph’s. When Doug recounts a supposed confrontation with Kayleen’s father, for example, the act seems wholly out-of-character along with Getman’s couch-stomping anger.
With Getman’s strong characterization, there is much for Fernandez-Coffey to play against, but truth be told, she pretty much steals the show. To her great credit, Fernandez-Coffey has completely eschewed the modern Hollywood and TV formulae for the “damaged” woman. She plays it utterly straight, with the soon-to-be-hard face of someone who may be waiting tables forever.
She is also the purveyor of the real pathos of the piece as we watch her uncertain face, already nervous of life as an 8-year-old, and the secretive pain as she quietly and still self-consciously fails to cope as an adult. She is expressive, understated and, at times, heart-wrenching. Director John Vreeke, gets it, nails it, and keeps the stagecraft fast and furious while giving his actors all they room they need to work Joseph’s potential.
Polar opposite to Gruesome’s everyday realism is the Washington Shakespeare Company’s Every Young Woman’s Desire. Chilean playwright Marco Antonio de la Parra’s disturbingly dreamlike study of another type of male-female yin and yang.
Set in General Pinochet’s Chile where people lived in constant fear of coming to the attention of the secret police, we are drawn quickly into the personal Hell of She, a young, apartment-dwelling woman, whose life is invaded by He, a very strange, often threatening man in dark glasses. As He continues to turn up in She’s apartment and engage with her, there begins a dialogue, of sorts, in which He appears to quite efficiently disorient She with his endless headgames. As She begins to unravel, the line between reality and fantasy blurs until there is nothing but violence and death.
This is another female role in which a lesser actor might resort to a Days of Our Lives hand-wringing by way of compensation for the unorthodox narrative. But Kari Ginsburg, demonstrating just how versatile an actor she is, digs in deep. From her mousey insecurities to her winsome inner-siren, she is this She. There is not a moment when Ginsburg loses the fiction or the tension. She is also finally in a venue large enough for the big voice that can occasionally distract.
With a He more surreal than real, Christopher Henley has a challenge – how to make this man palpable without destroying his mystery? Though he fully engages with Ginsburg and brings an undeniable presence to this absorbing piece, Henley doesn’t quite get the balance right. It may be equal parts de la Parra’s stage direction, director Jay Hardee’s choice, and Henley’s interpretation, but this He is rather like Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka without the charm or the menace – there is a flatness here that diminishes the pathos of She’s vulnerability.
Of course, as will be evident by now, this is not the play for someone in dire need of a cozy narrative. However, for those with a theatrical sense of adventure, this is a most thought-provoking evening and a chance to cogitate on the messages of de la Parra, whether allegorical, literal or somewhere in between.