Theater review: ‘Gruesome Playground Injuries’ at 35 below

TOUGH LOVE: Nina Troy and Patrick Brandt star in Gruesome Playground Injuries. The characters' acceptance of their fates and their inability to alter the paths they're on are haunting to watch.
TOUGH LOVE: Nina Troy and Patrick Brandt star in Gruesome Playground Injuries. The characters' acceptance of their fates and their inability to alter the paths they're on are haunting to watch. Photo by Lilly Mills

At the mention of a title like Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries, we don’t know whether we might be in store for a dark comedic romp through a literal series of playgrounds and the injuries that children sustain there or something that’s just this side of a Quentin Tarantino movie. What we end up getting with Attic Salt Theatre Company’s production of that play is a deeply moving and decidedly quirky look at two damaged people trying to come to terms with their mortality and failings across 30 years. The show is onstage at 35 below through Sunday, July 30.

Director Jeff Catanese lucked out when he cast real-life couple Patrick Brandt and Nina Troy as Doug and Kayleen. Their obvious chemistry instantly elevates the show. We see them first at age 8, meeting in a school nurse’s office. Kayleen is having stomach pains, which may be an indication of deeper problems and eating disorders that plague her across the years. Doug has just split his face open on the playground. They taunt and tease each other, and they bond.

When we next meet them, it’s at age 23, and Doug has blown out his eye in a fireworks accident. In fact, the level of Doug’s injuries is often horrific, as the title indicates. Both characters are so detached from intimacy that they accept the damage and flaws that fill their lives. Perhaps their suffering is the one thing that unites them. Doug is convinced that his wounds are somehow healed by Kayleen’s touch. She struggles with this notion but eventually wants to believe that their connection can somehow transcend the misery that follows them.

Between scenes, the crew brings out a rolling bin of makeup and costumes, and both actors change in full view of the audience. We witness their transformations to a score of classical music. It is sweetly intimate — enhanced by the closeness of 35 below’s space — as the actors help each other in the changes, then morph into the next scene. The show alternately jumps forward years or decades, then jumps back to fill in the blanks of the past in the next scene.

What could be jarring and disjointed in the bouncing chronology actually helps to create a deeper connection between the audience and the unfolding mystery of these two tragic people. They find each other repeatedly but often too late to prevent life’s disasters from befalling them. Their acceptance of their fates and a certain lack of ability to alter the paths they’re on are haunting and frustrating to watch. But by the end, it’s hard to not find what has transpired to be deeply moving. We have all known people just like these two characters or people on the precipice of becoming like them.

WHAT: Gruesome Playground Injuries
WHERE: 35 below at Asheville Community Theatre, 35 Walnut St., ashevilletheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, July 30. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. $20

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About Jeff Messer
playwright, actor, director and producer, Jeff Messer has been most recently known as a popular radio talk show host. He has been a part of the WNC theatre scene for over 25 years, and actively works with and supports most of the theatres throughout the region. Follow me @jeffdouglasmess

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