It's not unusual for a play to involve two damaged people. But it is a bit unconventional for those impairments to include an eye blown out by fireworks, a coma induced by a lightning strike, and an attempt at a DIY stomachectomy.
These ghastly events and a few more are referenced in Gruesome Playground Injuries, now on the boards at Ensemble Theatre. Penned by Rajiv Joseph, a graduate of Cleveland Heights High School and a rising luminary in theater, the play attempts to plumb the profound physical and psychic wounds of two struggling individuals.
There are eight scenes that attempt to capture the relationship of Doug and Kayleen from ages 8 to 38, and some resonate with depth, subtlety, and dark humor. But Ensemble's two-person cast is not consistently well matched, leaving other scenes lacking in both visceral impact and thematic heft.
Right from the start, Doug is pegged as a risk-taker: bleeding as a third-grader after he rode his bicycle off a garage roof. It is in that initial scene that we also learn of Kayleen's stomach-upset problems, which continue to follow her as the decades pass.
Arranged in a non-linear progression of meetings that happen at five-year intervals, the play essentially consists of 10-minute vignettes. Between each scene, the actors adjourn to upstage areas where they change their costumes and makeup in view of the audience.
The thematic source of this accurately titled show exists somewhere between the ridiculous and the sublime. On the sublime side, there's an obvious connection to the Bible, when Jesus invited Thomas to touch his wound. Thomas does so, and thus his faith is restored.
Indeed, Doug is repeatedly asking "Leenie" to press her fingers to his various bruises and gashes. And she does likewise, inviting him to trace the long scar that resulted when, during a drug-fueled interlude, she tried to remove her offending intestines. These efforts at reaching out are both literally and figuratively touching
On the ridiculous side, Injuries sometimes recalls those Billy Crystal/Christopher Guest "I Hate When That Happens" skits from Saturday Night Live in the '80s. (Typical dialogue: "You ever jam a meat thermometer in your ear as hard as you can?" "Yeah, I hate when that happens.")
And certainly, some of Doug's disablements are so self-inflicted and extreme as to be laughable. To wit, he was standing on the roof of his house during a thunderstorm when he was smacked by a lightning bolt.
In order to bring poignancy out of this collage of misery, you need two accomplished performers. As Doug, Dan Folino is very good and at times exceptional, crafting a telling portrait of this adrenaline junkie. By continually attempting the most outlandish stunts, Doug is seeking some sort of personal equilibrium while reaching out for meaningful contact.
Playing his bruised soulmate Kayleen is Celeste Cosentino, and she has some lovely and tender moments, especially in the younger ages. But there are layers to Kayleen that Cosentino never captures — particularly those involving rage and frustration. This makes Kayleen less mysterious and compelling than she should be and weakens Folino's ability to develop his character as intricately as he might.
Director Fred Sternfeld shapes the pacing of the scenes with clear understanding. But he misses an opportunity to make the production more involving by not moving the script-directed costume-change areas closer to the audience. These almost ritualized "backstage" moments suggest the routine artifice inherent in all our outward presentations. And they could be so intriguing if the audience were allowed to observe them in detail.
That's what touching wounds is all about: First, you have to open yourself to others.