The destructive streak in human nature is a recurring theme fast-rising playwright Rajiv Joseph, explores from different angles. Compared to his 2009 breakout “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” which splattered the psychological and moral consequences of violence across a broad geopolitical canvas, “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” his two-hander that debuted later the same year, is more inwardly focused on the legacy of childhood trauma. Joseph’s off-kilter sympathy for damaged outcasts is a natural fit for the edgy sensibilities of Rogue Machine, which launches its seventh season with a well-performed and handsomely staged production at Theatre Theater; the play itself, however, is more arty character study than memorable theatrical journey.
A series of gruesome self-inflicted wounds provide the connective tissue in Joseph’s “broke-mance,” tracing the thirty-year dysfunctional relationship between parental abuse victim Kayleen (Jules Willcox) and her accident-prone friend, Doug (Brad Fleischer, who originated the role at Houston’s Alley Theatre). They’re eight years old when they first meet in a school infirmary; after clearing that always-problematic performance hurdle for adult actors, Fleischer and Willcox build a genuine, affecting rapport through their characters’ subsequent friendship and estrangement.
The play’s saw-toothed chronology alternates fifteen-year leaps forward with ten-year flashbacks; director Larissa Kokernot mercifully helps us keep track by having the actors scrawl the characters’ age on a chalkboard during the leisurely scene transitions and onstage costume changes specified in the script. To the question always raised by a fractured timeline—what does it add versus playing the story straight through?—the answer here is not much. When Joseph’s script leaves the roots of Kayleen and Doug’s self-destructive impulses largely opaque, theatrical artifice isn’t a substitute for insight.
“Gruesome Playground Injuries,” Theatre Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 5 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays (dark June 23). Ends July 14. $30. (855) 585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com. Running time: 1 hours, 25 minutes.