Did you ever see the movie Crash?
No, not the racially charged Paul Haggis drama that somehow beat Brokeback Mountain for the Best Picture Oscar in 2006. I'm talking about David Cronenberg's Crash, a sicko movie from 10 years earlier starring James Spader as a numb-nut who gets off on vehicular crashes and especially the wounds they cause.
The first couple of scenes in Gruesome Playground Injuries reminded me of that creepy flick. As the two characters obsess over each other's wounds—"Does it hurt?" and "Can I touch it?" are frequent refrains—I thought maybe the play would emerge as a dead ringer, delving into the same icky fetish.
But Rajiv Joseph's 80-minute drama, which ends its run this weekend at Winding Road Theater Ensemble, has other things on its mind. The 2011 play, written by the author of the better-known Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, is about two people stuck in a terrible pattern of hurting themselves and each other. Their wounds, both seen and unseen, are what bring them together and tear them apart over the course of 30 years.
Doug (Christopher Johnson) and Kayleen (Dallas Thomas) are third-graders at a Catholic school when we first meet them. They are in the nurse's office, where the nauseated Kayleen is grossed out (and thrilled) by the damage Doug did to himself when he rode his bike off the roof of St. Margaret Mary.
"I broke my face," he says, worrying the gash with his finger while checking to make sure she's impressed.
Before long, Kayleen vomits into a wastebasket, which gives Doug the perfect opening to demonstrate his talent for puking at will. Their vomit gets mixed together, which even Kayleen admits is pretty cool.
Doug is smitten, of course, by this girl who keeps calling him stupid. Having bonded over a bucket of vomit, they keep coming back for more comparing and contrasting of wounds.
When Doug shoots his eye out five years later with fireworks, Kayleen is there to call him a retard while lovingly touching the empty socket. He comes to think of her as his own personal Jesus. Someone to hear his prayers. Someone who cares.
Sparks continue to fly halfheartedly as the carnage mounts over the years. The litany of calamities includes a lengthy coma, thighs cut with a razor blade, an ill-advised wedding (not to each other) and a mean daddy who drops dead.
None of this is particularly interesting, mind you. The biggest problem is the relationship itself. Johnson, the artistic director of Winding Road, is an exceptional actor who uses his entire body to make us believe that Doug digs this chick. But it takes two to create chemistry, and here it's periodic at best.
Thomas conveys some of the pain and a lot of the annoyance that seems to drive Kayleen, but it's impossible to believe that she would keep coming back to Doug. Worse yet, we don't much care whether they eventually find lasting love underneath all that gauze.
Gruesome Playground Injuries unfolds as a series of short, lugubrious scenes, each separated by a dimming of the lights, small costume changes, a shuffling of the furniture and the application of red makeup.
With all the stops for new bandages, the play fails to pick up any momentum on its way to nothing much of an ending. Maybe it would have worked better to let us imagine the blood and the missing tooth.
As it is, the bare-bones production (a white sheet hides the set of Boom, the other current Winding Road offering) brings to mind an extended exercise in an advanced drama class. The duo are directed by Evan Werner, who plays the eternally hopeful marine biologist in Boom, which also ends its run on Sunday.
Gruesome Playground Injuries has its moments, mostly thanks to some choice emotions and expressions delivered by Johnson, whose face is assuredly not broken.
As for the play, it aims for the heart. Does it hurt? Not really.