Putting together the pieces of Rajiv Joseph’s “Gruesome Playground Injuries” provides the same pleasure as a connect-the-dots book. Over eight scenes of slightly less than 10 minutes each, the final picture takes shape; we can see what it’s going to be but don’t know every detail until each separate point has been linked.
The show, which will be the last one ever at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, begins when Kayleen (Nicky Jasper) and Doug (Eric Blake) meet as 8-year-olds in the school nurse’s office. Her perennially roiling stomach has made her vomit, and he’s done an Evel Knievel off the roof of his school on a bike, splitting open his face.
It ends when they meet 30 years later, one a husk of a former self and the other possibly on the road to recovery. In between, it jumps around in time, with a video screen explaining their ages and the physical or psychological trauma involved in each segment.
Joseph’s non-chronological progress seems more of a gimmick than anything else, though it creates a scene of retro-foreboding. Doug loses an eye to a firework at 23 and, much later, mentions to Kayleen at 18 that he has a box of fireworks in the car; the audience shudders.
What really matters is the connection between a perennially adolescent and optimistic man, who’s assaulted by the most crippling run of accidents you could imagine, and a perennially bitter woman whose cruel and absent parents have left her a wreck.
Doug thinks he’s unworthy to love Kayleen, though he defends her honor and tried to help her out of trouble; Kayleen thinks she’s unworthy to be loved, which is why her guts never stops churning. Fate mutilates him, abetted by his own idiocy; she mutilates herself with cigarettes and a box-cutter and bile.
Either Joseph or director Kelly Mizell-Ryan had a clever idea to sustain tension: Costume and makeup changes take place at the corners of the stage in full view, as we watch Jasper draw a strange line across her abdomen or see Blake rub signs of pinkeye on his cheeks. Apt music, including “Love is a Battlefield,” underscores these interludes.
The tall, thin, flop-haired Blake projects the kind of eager boyishness some men never lose, as he lopes heedlessly through the world and smiles at its blows. Jasper handles her character’s moods equally well, showing us the sad longing beneath the self-loathing.
We finally come to accept that Kayleen may be beautiful inside, a fact Doug settled on long ago. If we can’t expect love to run smoothly – or, perhaps, at all – we can at least hope both learn to live with and transcend their pain.