GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES by Rajiv Joseph, directed by Stefan Dzeparoski, with Peter Mooney and Janet Porter. Presented by BirdLand Theatre at the Theatre Centre (1076 Queen West). Opens tonight (Thursday, May 3) and runs to May 13, Tuesday-Sunday 7:30 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 1:30 pm (no mat May 5). $20-$30. 416-538-0988. See listing.
Schoolyard cuts and scrapes hold no terrors for Kayleen and Doug, the two characters in Gruesome Playground Injuries. From childhood on, they face a whole lot worse.
Tracing three decades in the lives of the pair, beginning with their meeting at eight in the school nurse's office, Rajiv Joseph's play explores a push-pull relationship simultaneously horrifying in its intensity and laugh-out-loud funny.
Though the script deals with major gashes, fireworks burns and stomach pains caused by something more deep-seated than indigestion, the scenes resonate with a dark humour that might suggest a Monty Python sketch.
"Joseph's got this brilliant ability to write sitcom-style quick, witty banter, but the substance underneath is dark and meaty," says Janet Porter, who plays Kayleen. "By the end of the play, the characters rip your heart out, but you've been laughing all the way through."
"I'm attracted to the organic writing," adds Peter Mooney, who plays Doug, "the fact that while Joseph deals with the specifics of these two people's lives, he also refers simultaneously to moments outside and above the day-to-day elements, points that fill us in on who they really are."
The playwright moves back and forth in time - projected scene titles help us locate where we are in the characters' lives - to trace the essential link between Doug and Kayleen.
"They meet at crucial points in their lives when an injury has happened," explains Porter, whose previous stage work includes The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot and Family Stories: Belgrade. "We've talked a lot in rehearsal about how they're magnets attracted to each other, innately made to be together despite the pain they're in.
"Kayleen, for instance, has an innocence in addition to her dark side; she's a damaged little soul even at eight. Realizing she's not wanted by her family, she develops an anxiety that manifests itself in major stomach issues; I see her vomiting as a way of releasing internal pain. At the same time, she feels a numbness and fear of happiness. Doug cuts through that fear."
In contrast, Doug comes from a background that's "idyllic and suburban; he plays hockey and has lots of brothers," notes Mooney, who's performed in theatre out west and in TV series Falcon Beach and Camelot.
"But Doug also has a hell of a daredevil streak that manifests itself in recklessness. Unlike Kayleen, he's not suffering from overt mental anguish, but experiencing life wildly and vividly. He channels the darker aspect of his personality in bizarre physical stunts that leave him with scars."
It might sound surprising that the events in these intertwined damaged lives become funny in performance. The playwright is also part of the writing team for the blackly comic TV series Nurse Jackie.
But the comedy is there, agree the actors, who laugh and joke with each other throughout the interview. They both talk about playing the "truth of the story."
"By the end of the play, I still want the two characters to get together so badly," smiles Porter. "As actors, we have a bit of hope each time we play it that they'll work it out."