BWW Review: GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES is a Quirky & Heartfelt Debut for Milwaukee's New Constructivists
"Our throw-up's all mixed together," says Doug. He's staring into a trash bin in the school nurse's office circa 1993, his expression that perfect pre-teen boy mix of grossed out and super stoked. Kayleen in her spandex shorts, floral jumper, and half-up scrunchie hairdo wants to see. She may repeatedly call Doug "disgusting," but she can handle more than her share of mixed-up throw-up.
That's kind of what Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuries is all about: Two people and the simultaneously cringe-worthy and fascinating ways in which their messy lives get all mixed up. Doug (the feisty Rob Schreiner) and Kayleen (the pitch-perfect Solana Ramirez-Garcia) meet in the school nurse's office as children in 1988 - Kayleen has a stomach ache, Doug fell and "broke" his face. They meet back there again during the throw-up incident of 1993, where the two evade the middle school dance and a best-friendship is born.
The scenes jump back and forth through time, bouncing from elementary days to Kayleen's father's funeral in 2003, a hospital room in 2013, and a final snapshot of the two protagonists in 2018, with some years visited on more than one occasion. The leaping about through time really ups the intrigue, as plot holes are slowly filled in and questions answered. Are there still more questions as the two take their bows? Yes - but that's the beauty of it. Whether an optimist or realist, Gruesome Playground Injuries delivers.
This debut production, directed by Jaimelyn Gray of Milwaukee's new company The Constructivists, embraces the relative simplicity of the play's material. This isn't a story that requires grand sets or costumes - rather, it's relatable and, though messy and heavy at times, is peppered with humor and is never so overly dramatic to the point of unbelievable. It's a real-world story of two people falling in and out of each other's lives, and a stripped down set with on-stage costume changes hits the nail of raw reality right on the head.
The actors themselves share phenomenal chemistry - something that, if lacking, would have completely derailed the production. But Schreiner and Ramirez-Garcia commit to Doug and Kayleen - Schreiner being the goofy, headstrong, and lovable one; Ramirez-Garcia being plenty fiery, yet beautifully tender and vulnerable. Ramirez-Garcia is especially stirring in her more emotionally-charged scenes, and yet the simple way she asks Doug "Does it hurt?" over the course of their injury-ridden lives leaves an equally poignant mark.
Though, in the end, it may feel like there's a tiny piece of the puzzle missing (more from the best-friendship years would be nice, perhaps), watching these two play off each other so brilliantly makes up for any lingering questions. At 90 minutes without an intermission, this is a wonderfully well-written piece of theater, and one that's a worthy kick-off for Milwaukee's new Constructivists. Artistic Director Jaimelyn Gray says this play captures the kind of the work they hope to produce: "Funny, quirky, sad, with a mess of emotion."