Don't let the wounds in the title or the promo photos deceive you. "Gruesome Playground Injuries" isn't a bloody production. Far from a horror exercise, it's a drama that views a friendship through the lens of mutual confession and suffering, though each suffers for different reasons.
In writer Rajiv Joseph's narrative conception, we meet the play's lone two characters during moments of hospitalization, treatment or visits to the school nurse's office. We first meet Doug and Kayleen when they're age 8 and end when they're 38, but Joseph has shuffled the sequence into non-chronological order.
Doug, played by Ben Seratt, is a little bit well-off, athletic, accident-prone and fiercely loyal. Seratt embodies the character's essential goodness that sometimes reads as naively adoring. Kayleen (Jourdan Nokleby) is more cynical, sometimes standoffish and seemingly more complex since her "injuries" are mostly internal and grow more difficult with age.
The title of the play, finishing a run this weekend at the Roxy Theater, can also mask that Joseph has written a very funny play with realistic dialogue. Doug's injuries, never witnessed on stage, are often stupid and Kayleen isn't afraid to chastise him for his errors. Much of the heart of the play is watching two best friends struggle to help each other, taking turns acting against their own best interests. This involves some profanity, in case you hadn't already keyed in that it's not for children.
As we shuffle back and forth in the timeline, viewers see how these two move forward, stall or regress in their adulthood and their relationship together. Joseph uses the technique to create some non-chronological foreshadowing, leaving viewers in the dark about finer points.
You'll note that this is a two-person play, and Nokleby and Seratt portray their characters at all ages. The costuming and scene changes helps signal these shifts, but ultimately it's left to them to embody Kayleen and Doug at awkward junior-high optimism or angst through to the outward angst of their 20s to mid-30s quiet malaise, a challenge that they both meet.
Seratt and Nokleby both have "dressing rooms" on either side of the stage, where they'd change between scenes in full sight of the audience. This conceit, also written into Joseph's script, underscores both that it's not real while enhancing your appreciation when another scene, intense even when light-hearted, begins.
Director Mike Fink and company have done an excellent job with a two-hander that's dominated by dialogue and interaction. I'm not sure what the protocol on applause is for a play that has seven scene changes, but the audience at the Roxy Theater last Friday clapped at every one. Even though the play doesn't break the fourth wall, the theater space couldn't be more intimate — as an audience member you feel just as visible to the actors as they are to you.
This is one of two plays that the indie company BetweenTheLines is producing to open its first season. The other, "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea," is also an emotionally demanding two-hander. They both close out their runs at the Roxy this weekend. For tickets or more information, go to theroxytheater.org.