By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
In Theatre Exile’s fine production of Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries we follow two people-- friends, soulmates, almost-lovers--through their thirty-year relationship. Director Deborah Block has found exactly the right funny and tender and troubling tone.
We meet the characters when they meet each other: Doug (Keith Conallen who seems to outdo himself with each performance, surely one of the subtlest, most moving actors in the city) and Kayleen (the lovely Charlotte Ford who adds, gradually, layers of self-damage to her character). They are eight years old; she’s in the school nurse’s office because she keeps throwing up; he staggers in with a grisly “broken face,” having ridden his bike off the roof. The dialogue is essence of kid: “You’re stupid.” “Shut up.” This is illuminated by sudden flashes of their individuality: “I’m not stupid, I’m brave,” he declares.“Dungeons are where people go to languish,” she says, luxuriating in that last word.
In eight scenes—not always in chronological order—we watch Doug and Kayleen grow up. Twenty-three. Thirteen. Twenty-eight. Eighteen. Thirty-three. Back to twenty-three. Thirty-eight.
In each scene, we see some new injury, some new calamity; these are self-destructive people, injured in ways far deeper than the crutches or bandages or hospitals or wheelchairs or scars show. Rajiv Joseph offers no easy answers: happy homelife, horrible homelife; no comfort for us in any easy causality.
We watch Ford and Conallen change costumes (designed by Alison Roberts) to get older or younger. The lighting (Drew Billau) brightens and darkens without ever signaling an “uh-oh.” The atmospheric set, designed by Dan Boylen is terrific: dark, mottled gray walls, two cots, two lockers, and a scoreboard on the upstage wall. Each scene gets a score card— the age and the injury. The troubling fact is that the list of scenes goes up to #9, but we only see up to #8. It’s like fifth-stage cancer: they are never going to make it to scene #9.
Theatre Exile at Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom St.. Through Dec.4. Tickets $15-40. Information: 215-218-4022 or www.theatreexile.org