By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2010; C03
In "Gruesome Playground Injuries," the damage goes far deeper than skin and cartilage. Rajiv Joseph's romantic dramedy, offered up with an appealing vivacity by Woolly Mammoth Theatre, wrestles with the problem of a young man and woman who struggle vainly over the decades to wrap each other in a blanket of love and protection.
Recounted as a series of vignettes that hopscotch back and forth across time, the story of Doug (Tim Getman) and Kayleen (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) unfolds around their respective affinities for mishap. Doug, oblivious to danger -- and a little bit of a masochist -- repeatedly winds up in school nurses' offices and intensive care units. Kayleen, meanwhile, is susceptible to more psychic distress, revealed in her neurotic episodes of pill popping and self-mutilation.
It's the jaunty, quirkily amusing tone Joseph takes with their encounters, from the time Doug and Kayleen are 8 until they're 38, that makes this play more than the sum of its metaphors. Getman's Doug, in particular, successfully advances the comic possibilities, infusing the character with a sweaty boyishness reminiscent of Tom Hanks in "Big." His manic displays around Fernandez-Coffey's troubled Kayleen help you to understand her deep ambivalence about Doug, even though he probably represents her best hope for happiness.
Director John Vreeke effectively embraces the story's crosscurrents, drawing out the play's youthful exuberance as well as its sadder dimension -- the sense that even when two people can be each other's salvation, there's no guarantee that they'll ever reach the kind of emotional synchronicity that allows them to carry out the rescue.
Still, you find yourself wishing that a few more of the expository blanks had been filled in. Maybe that's because Joseph, author of "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama, has developed characters in "Gruesome Playground Injuries" of such rich dramatic potential, and ambiguous connection. Doug and Kayleen are best friends of a special intimacy, although their romantic history is unclear: One of the scenes that could use a little more foundation has the 18-year-old Doug visiting Kayleen in her bedroom, jumping nonchalantly on top of her and being summarily dismissed from the bed.
In the latter portions of the play, Doug and Kayleen meet only about once every five years, and yet their conversations seem to evolve as if they were daily presences in each other's lives. Yes, with some unusual friendships, we do pick up where we left off, but the interests of drama are better served when we have a clearer understanding of why people go away and come back.
Even so, we do at some instinctive level believe in the bond between Doug and Kayleen, and that has to do with the authenticity of their pain. We never doubt their innate, almost mystical, compassion for what the other has endured.
The arresting set by Misha Kachman reinforces a conceit of the piece: that life plays out in a bruising arena. The seating arrangement is in-the-round, with Kachman's evocation of a dilapidated ice rink filling the central performance area.
Overhead, the designer suspends a broken scoreboard, which keeps track of the various ages at which the characters meet, and at the edges of the stage are cabinets and mirrors the actors use for costume changes. Music by contemporary artists such as I'm From Barcelona and Ludo fills the scene transitions, though the soundscape does not correspond chronologically to the events of the show.
Getman and Fernandez-Coffey ably mature and regress with Doug and Kayleen, helping the play's puzzle pieces interlock with charm and vigor.
Gruesome Playground Injuries
by Rajiv Joseph. Directed by John Vreeke. Lighting, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Franklin Labovitz; sound, Christopher Baine. About 90 minutes. Through June 13 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Visit http://www.woollymammoth.net or call 202-393-3939.