Memory is episodic. I recently and reluctantly ended an important friendship; when that happens, what come instantly to mind are the large and small events that led to our unraveling: a brunch here, a vacation there, a disagreement that unexpectedly devolves into a moment of no return while strolling down the street together. The tricky thing is, these memories rarely play in chronological sequence. Rather, they rush back and forth like a random shuffle through your iTunes library.
That’s the plot contrivance behind Gruesome Playground Injuries, Rajiv Joseph’s 85-minute rumination on a romance that never was, produced by the Azeotrope theater company. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Memento, Joseph writes his scenes as a series of short, disjointed snapshots in time. Once assembled by the audience, they chart a co-dependent relationship that always seems to falter at the cusp of becoming the salvation that Kayleen (Amanda Zarr) and Doug (Richard Nguyen Sloniker) so desperately seek.
In the first scene, Kayleen is a high-strung and dyspeptic 8-year-old visiting the school nurse’s office, where she’s been clutching her stomach and trying to grasp why she’s been singled out among her classmates for misery. Distraction soon appears in the form of Dougie, who’s ripped a gash into his face while joyriding his bike—off the school roof. It becomes clear soon enough that each of them has a singular ability to calm the other’s inner demons, but is that enough to justify a future romance?
Joseph posits that love affairs are often begun and ended for reasons no less frivolous or accidental. Again and again, Doug appears at the crossroads of Kayleen’s life to offer not only his support, but his love and assertion that she’s a being with preternatural healing abilities of her own—even if they seem to work only on him.
During the course of their relationship, Kayleen matures into a woman embittered by her past and unwilling to trust that she has any kind of power at all, unless it’s simply to survive the series of perceived ignominies life tosses her way. Conversely, Doug’s risk-taking escalates with each passing year. Maybe he’s just “accident-prone,” as he says he’s often described. Or perhaps Kayleen has it right when she observes that throughout their star-crossed history, Doug has been looking for someone to save him from himself.
Joseph’s 2009 one-act does have moments of levity, but you’d be hard-pressed to call it funny. And while his characters are both believable and well-rounded, they’re not going to replace Romeo and Juliet as romantic archetypes. His real achievement here is more philosophical, an uncanny focus on that acute juncture between bitter and sweet. Once he finds that bittersweet spot, he rides the emotion like a bullet train for an hour and 15 minutes. Gruesome Playground Injuries is by turns tender and angry, silly and rueful, but mostly it gracefully hovers over these never-lovers—artfully regarding the dilemma of people we can love, but never be in love with.
Director Desdemona Chiang works small miracles with a minimalist stage (cleverly conceived as little more than movable hospital curtains by Deanna Zibello) and a pair of eminently watchable performers as they portray Kayleen and Doug from 8 to 38. Zarr and Sloniker are better than perfectly cast. Their performances are so thoroughly realized that you’ll see 8-year-old personality traits in their characters 20 years later and discern shadings of troubles to come in their scenes as teenagers looking at the prospects of a brighter future.
How you’ll respond to the play will depend largely on the way you view your own life—as a series of challenges met or a succession of opportunities that have slipped by.
GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES Washington Ensemble Theatre, 608 19th Ave. E., 800-838-3006, azotheatre.org, brownpapertickets.com. $25. 7:30 p.m. Fri., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat.–Sun. Ends. Aug. 11.