Do resist any temptation to regard Rajiv Joseph’s dark comedy, “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” as some warm-up act for his “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” a 2010 Pulitzer prize finalist due to open on Broadway this spring with Robin Williams. Although technically a dread “relationship play” about a destructive friendship spanning 30 years, this wondrous strange two-hander examines its subject in a spare absurdist style that finds as much humor as horror in the play’s bizarre events. Helmer Scott Ellis knows where all the laughs are buried and he leads stars Jennifer Carpenter and Pablo Schreiber right to them.
Kayleen (Carpenter, the no-nonsense sister of a serial killer in Showtime’s “Dexter”) and Doug (Schreiber, nommed for a Tony in “Awake and Sing”) meet cute in the school infirmary when they are both eight years old. Doug, who is accident prone, cut a gash in his face when he rode his bike off the school roof. Kayleen, who has a “sensitive stomach,” is in for another one of her stomach aches.
Joseph shares two important insights about Kayleen and Doug in this scene. The first thing is that they inflict pain on themselves because pain is something they can actually feel. (“Does it hurt?” they keep asking one another.) The other thing we learn is that both children thrive in a sickroom atmosphere. (Kayleen calls the infirmary a “dungeon,” which she describes as a place “where people can go to languish and get some peace and quiet.”)
Both thesps withhold condescending commentary, playing the kids with the kind of matter-of-fact naturalness that allows them to discuss their respective ailments with deadpan seriousness, the way children do. Through these flawless performances an enduring friendship is established, an unhealthy but comforting one based on co-dependency.
Over the next 30 years, Doug will continue to abuse and even lose certain important body parts. Kayleen, who has turned into a “cutter,” will keep trying to heal him.
In Ellis’s antiseptically clean production, the unadorned stage is as austere as the direct language and spotless performances.
The one indispensable piece of stage furniture on Neil Patel’s set is a hospital bed — so exposed under Donald Holder’s stark lighting you can hardly miss it. Everything else appears as needed and disappears on cue. The flat metallic surfaces of both side walls hide deep sliding drawers containing costumes and medical supplies. Downstage and sunk into the floor, the lip of the stage is lined with ice-blue Lucite cubes storing water for washing off blood.
Although time and place would seem to have no dimension in this abstract setting, titles projected on the back wall supply the children’s ages and identify the body part at risk. Scenes are played in no particular chronological order, so an eye socket that’s empty in one scene might get its eyeball back in the next.
But that’s the way it is with existential pain in Joseph’s absurdist world. If it doesn’t hurt, you can’t really feel it.