Review: Emotional heft and humor at the heart of Rajiv Joseph’s ‘Gruesome Playground Injuries’

Playwright Rajiv Joseph defies categorization. His most famous work, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” is an absurd anthropomorphic romp that blurs the line between animals and humans, humor and pathos, life and death.

Joseph’s “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” now at the Hudson in Los Angeles, is a two-person play that is, on the surface at least, more dramatically straightforward than “Tiger.” In the most elementary terms, it is an examination of the 30-year friendship between a young man and woman, from childhood onward — no more, no less.

This summation, however, fails to convey the emotional heft of Joseph’s funny and beautifully executed piece, a tour de force for director John Hindman and two splendid young performers.


The play is composed of non-chronological scenes. Dustin Reno’s crucial rear projections mingle elegiac videos of idealized youth with banners tipping us off to the ages of the characters, starting at 8.

Sara Rae Foster plays Kayleen, an emotionally frozen young woman wounded by pathologically cruel parents. Jeff Ward is Doug, a young man from a solid family prone to bone-headed pranks that indeed leave him “gruesomely injured.”

The two come together intermittently over the years — Kayleen’s persistent rejection of Doug’s cautious overtures keeps romance at bay — yet they share the most profound bond of their lives.

It’s a simple enough premise. The brilliance lies in Joseph’s fascinating dialogue between Doug and Kayleen as they progress from quirky youth to catastrophic adulthood. It’s not so much what is said as what is left unspoken. We are privy to only scant flashes of Kayleen’s horrible home life, but it’s enough to chill, and the gifted Foster conveys every beat of Kayleen’s emotional agony. As the rollicking, “accident prone” Doug, Ward delivers a hilarious and poignant performance, a phenomenal turn that bodes well for his career.


“Gruesome Playground Injuries,” the Hudson Theatres, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 26. $25. (323) 960-7773. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

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