With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, you’d better hurry if you want to top the romantic gestures offered by the characters in Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries at Second Stage. Stuck in a nurse’s office during a middle school dance, Kayleen (Jennifer Carpenter) and Doug (Pablo Schreiber) share a first kiss. Then she vomits into a wastebasket. To soften her humiliation, Doug forces himself to puke, too. “Our throw-up’s all mixed together,” he says gallantly. “You want to see?”
Well, we do and we don’t. These gross-out bits are at once the ickiest and the most engaging aspects of Joseph’s drama. It follows Kayleen and Doug from ages eight to 38. (Joseph is in his thirties; perhaps he believes nothing interesting happens after.) Rather than working chronologically, the play uses a particular arithmetical formula, moving 15 years forward and then 10 years back. It’s Doug and Kayleen’s various wounds that keep drawing them together: her stomachaches, his lacerations, her self-harm, his coma. Love never quite blossoms amid all the surgical dressing.
There is elegance in the way the play’s geometric precision contrasts with the messiness of the lives it contains. And there is pathos in many of Joseph’s themes: that external injury is only a symptom of internal anguish, that our bodies become display cabinets for our souls, each scar and cracked tooth commemorating a psychic event. But the characters feel at once overdrawn and insufficiently inhabited. This is mostly Joseph’s fault, but it’s a problem the actors can’t quite overcome. The winning Schreiber very nearly manages to humanize Doug’s absurd catalog of wounds (paralysis to pinkeye), but Carpenter struggles with Kayleen, whose damage is largely internal—at least until she tries to cut out her own belly. This is not a show for the faint of stomach.
On Neil Patel’s unwelcoming set (walls of filing cabinets and water-filled boxes), director Scott Ellis keeps the staging brisk. Though he also pauses the action long enough to create short, sweet entre-acts in which Carpenter tenderly helps Schreiber ready his next bloody wound. Now doesn’t that beat a box of chocolates?