NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Perhaps the most original American play yet written about the Iraq War is Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” a 2010 Pulitzer finalist coming to Broadway in the spring with Robin Williams in the title role.
In the meantime, the playwright offers further evidence of his distinctive voice with the disquieting two-hander “Gruesome Playground Injuries.” It might be the best play title since “God of Carnage,” and would be an almost equally fitting tag for Yasmina Reza’s bloody smackdown of middle-class mores, currently being filmed by Roman Polanski. But while a kids’ schoolyard skirmish was a springboard from which Reza explored festering incivility, Joseph uses the nasty wounds and upset stomachs of children to etch the unbreakable pattern of a morbid long-term friendship.
From age 8 through 38, Doug and Kayleen are each other’s protectors, unable to overcome their frictions nor to ignore their mutual magnetism. Pablo Schreiber (seen in the new FX series “Lights Out”) and Jennifer Carpenter (of Showtime’s “Dexter”) negotiate that uneasy push-pull with as much raw tenderness as tender rawness. Literally, these two hurt.
In Second Stage’s sleek production, running through February 20, the play is directed with a savvy balance of mordant humor and romantic longing by Scott Ellis. A dab hand at comedy, lately much in demand in television, his recent credits include “Modern Family,” “Hung,” “30 Rock,” “The Good Wife” and “Weeds.”
Joseph breaks the action down into non-chronological chapters at five-year intervals, each one identified by the protagonists’ age and injuries. We first meet them at 8 in the nurse’s office, when Doug has ridden his bike off the school roof, splitting open his forehead. Kayleen’s complaint is a more pedestrian bout of nausea, but they find a shared interest in cuts, scars, aches and abrasions, sealed when Doug allows her to touch his gaping head gash.
Not since Holly Hunter and James Spader courted mutilation in David Cronenberg’s “Crash” have two people embraced pain with such fetishistic fascination.
As we encounter them over the years, between separations, other (invariably failed) relationships and hospitalizations, we learn that Doug has lost an eye in a fireworks accident, torn a tendon, knocked out a tooth, been struck by lightning, and mangled a leg while retrieving a keepsake for Kayleen from their demolished school. There’s an element of ritualistic self-sacrifice to his mishaps.
Ditto Kayleen, whose injuries combine psychological scars with physical, ranging from date rape to adolescent cutting to being institutionalized for attempting to slice open her stomach and remove the pain. She describes her cocktail of medication as “like a swirl of ice cream in me.”
While Doug clearly loves her and believes in her capacity to heal by laying hands on him, Kayleen pushes him away, unwilling to let him get caught in her trainwreck.
Joseph’s writing is a little too enigmatic to give it much emotional charge, but the play is weird and authentically painful enough to keep it enthralling.
It’s helped by the poignant interplay between Carpenter and Schreiber, who make their most extreme behavior endearing. Even when they are grossed-out kids feigning scorn and hostility, the connection is undeniable. And while their performances assume distinguishing shadings as they grow older, the defining mold is set at age 8.
Designed with customary starkness by Neil Patel, the king of clinical austerity, the play unfolds on a kind of reflecting pool. Scene changes are as much about triage as wardrobe, making use of first-aid cabinets and closet drawers that appear out of walls, while lids flip up on water-filled floor compartments to allow Doug to bathe his wounds. Additional seating rows in the upstage area cement the idea of these characters being medical cases under observation.
Despite the absurdity of the play’s off-kilter relationship, Ellis’ focused production becomes steadily more melancholy in tone. As we learn more about them and their damaged souls we come to understand that physical pain is perhaps the only path toward real feeling for these two casualties of a cold mean world.