Characters in plays are an actuarial nightmare: always getting hurt, always hurting each other. The stage blood certainly flows freely Off Broadway these days: a violently evacuated eye socket, a severed limb, cuts and gashes aplenty. In addition to Blood From a Stone and its mangled hand, there are two new injury zones. First up, is Gruesome Playground Injuries, from late-Gen-X playwright Rajiv Joseph (short-listed for the 2010 Pulitzer for his upcoming Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which will star Robin Williams). Having demonstrated an ear for the wistful, wabi-sabi whimsy of misfits with Animals Out of Paper (a wrinkly love story about damaged origamists), Joseph now takes on a very dangerous subject for thirtysomethings: nostalgia.
Yes, Gruesome is, superficially, about a 30-year unrequited romance — stretching from grade school to the foyer of middle-age — between Doug, a sweet, danger-prone goofball (Pablo Schreiber of Lights Out and Awake and Sing!) and Kayleen, a depressive disposed to self-harm (Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter). They meet at age 8, in a Catholic-school infirmary: She’s feeling ill because she’s always feeling ill; he just rode his bike off the roof. The play revisits them at ages 13, 18, 23, 28, 33, and 38, but its progression is clinical rather than chronological: each crossing of their paths coincides with a wound (deliberately self-inflicted for her, nominally “accidental” for him).
Schreiber and Carpenter navigate that most treacherous of acting challenges — aging out of childhood onstage — with a surprising grace, even glee. They invest Joseph’s spare, broken language and wire-frame structure with an enormous amount of aching warmth — and perhaps create an illusion of a play that doesn’t exist, or exists only in relief, only in its all-too-conspicuous absence: What does this life-defining romance consist of, outside of these spotlit hospital visits? (The injuries get steadily more grievous, to the awkward point of near-comedy — Joseph often feels just a wheelie-pop away from a wilder, more thrilling, more dangerous cusp of absurdity, but he trips over his heart a bit.) As charming as these two are in the emergency room — and they are always in the emergency room, atmospherically, thanks to Neil Patel’s Star Trek ice cube of a set — Joseph doesn’t even attempt to make a case for the Doug-Kayleen relationship beyond the realm of bodily harm. Their conversations are all conflict, endless, fruitless argumentation, hard banter, jabs, and ripostes. They’re just one big shared hurt, these two — star-crossed, not-quite lovers heroically united in pain, which, rather conveniently substitutes for sex, for adulthood, for growing. This arrangement gets us through the play’s 80 minutes — though just barely. Gruesome isn’t really about love at all, no more than a Facebook tour of one’s high-school exes is about love. Childhood and its loss are the real obsessions here, though I got the distinct feeling Joseph isn’t fully aware of that — as a result, an unlovely strain of Logan’s Run life-ends-at-30 fatalism infects this otherwise unaffectedly sweet little show. (A show which, owing to the very factors highlighted above, will no doubt have a long, long life in amateur rep, in college, and, judiciously expurgated, in high-school one-act competitions.)
Most of the wounds in Gruesome are prepared onstage, in full view of the audience. A blown eye socket is particularly striking — though it can hardly compete with the full-on live amputation in The Whipping Man, a square little Civil War drama from new-voice Matthew Lopez and director Doug Hughes. The amputator is Simon (Men of a Certain Age’s Andre Braugher), a newly freed house slave still nominally loyal to the Jewish Confederate family who once owned him. (He’s waiting for the return of his wife and daughter, whom he believes to have fled Richmond with the Master.) The amputee is Caleb (Jay Wilkison), the master’s son, just returned from Petersburg with a gunshot wound to his leg, bad gangrene, and some dangerous secrets. In a gutsy flouting of theatrical convention, Simon makes it halfway through the bone before the curtain closes — are we in for an evening of Martin McDonaugh–style splatter metaphysics? The Whipping Man is your basic TV movie, workmanlike in its drumbeat linearity, lazily and unconsciously contemporary in its sensibilities and linguistics, and based on a set of interesting but ultimately empty what-ifs: We know there were Confederate Jews — what if they converted their slaves? What if those slaves stayed Jewish after Emancipation? What if the irony of the Passover ritual were played out in the ruins of the Big House? (“Why is this year different than all other years?” quips “Nigger John," the slippery foil to stolid Simon — and that’s about as deep as the socio-religious interrogation gets.) The answer to the above questions is: Drama! With a very small d. Amputation aside, the meatiest moment of the show comes as we watch Braugher chew on some nearly indigestible horseflesh. Let’s get him back on stage soon; I’d like watch him chew on something truly substantial.
Gruesome Playground Injuries is playing at Second Stage through February 20.
The Whipping Man is playing at Manhattan Theater Club's City Center Stage 1 through March 20.