"I am big. It's the pictures that got small," Norma Desmond says in Sunset Boulevard.
There's a discernible condescension in a number of reviews of Rajiv Joseph's 2011 play, Gruesome Playground Injuries, in its early productions. Mainly these reviews keep comparing it to Joseph's "bigger" play, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which world-premiered at L.A.'s Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2009. Ben Brantley's New York Times review of Injuries at Second Stage Theatre sums up the put-downs in his description of the work as a "blood-splattered twig of a play." Brantley finds it "less substantial" than the Pulitzer Prize finalist Bengal Tiger, which was already Broadway-bound at the time Injuries premiered in New York.
I'm not convinced that Injuries lacks substance. It may lend that impression because it places its large ideas into small frames, such as the series of clinics and hospital rooms in which Injuries' two characters — lifetime friends each bent on self-destruction — keep meeting over a period of 30 years. In those rooms, either Doug or Kayleen, whether age 8 or 38, is recovering from some self-imposed physical trauma.
For the play's Los Angeles premiere at Rogue Machine's tiny studio theater, designer David Mauer places the audience on bleachers around the stage so that even the front row, behind a wall, is considerably higher than the actors. The effect is that of being in an observation room or, perhaps, looking through a microscope — a perspective entirely consistent with the play.
Regardless of the set, you'd think from so many reviews of character studies like this one, that the view through a microscope is somehow less important and less insightful than the view through a telescope.
There's no question that the view of Bengal Tiger is telescopic. It's a fantasia set in Iraq during the second U.S. invasion of that nation, and it features soldiers, an Iraqi translator and a Tiger who ruminates with jocularity and eloquence. It, too, concerns all manners of self-destructive behaviors. Its larger impression comes largely from the scale of its canvas. But it's foolish to forget that whatever cures we discovered for what used to be terminal diseases came from people looking through microscopes, not telescopes.
The Sistine Chapel is memorable for its grandeur, but the Mona Lisa is a very small painting. So where lies the "bigger" picture?
Brantley rightly acknowledges that the perverse psychological dynamics unfolding in Injuries' two characters mirror those in Bengal Tiger. Yet he concludes that Joseph's "darkly funny, piquant sensibility somehow shrinks into preciousness in Gruesome Playground Injuries."
At Second Stage Theatre, perhaps so. But there's nothing precious about the production at Rogue Machine. This does not, however, make Injuries a great play. Once it establishes the cat-and-mouse game between Doug (Brad Fleischer) and Kayleen (Jules Willcox), a game borne of their respective pathologies, and once those pathologies are clear, the play's investigation of intimacy and its discontents, swept along by an operatically romantic, sentimental undercurrent between the two main characters, starts to feel boxed in.
But this production mitigates that feeling with its spectacularly explosive yet tender performances.
Doug is a daredevil who, at age 8, emulates Evel Knievel by riding his bicycle off the roof of his parochial school. The first scene (entitled "Face Split Open") in a series of poignant, funny, sardonic blackout sketches takes place in the school infirmary, where Doug (his clothes are splattered with blood and he wears a head bandage) pleads with Kaylee to touch his wound. As though he's asking her to touch his genitals, she's disgusted, yet Doug is intuitive enough to understand, even at age 8, that Kayleen is a healer.
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Before each scene or sketch is a projection of its title and the characters' ages — which is needed, since the scenes jump back and forth in time. Insights emerge as they would in, say, a courtroom drama based on testimony that keeps enriching the larger story.
In playing children, teenagers and young adults, both Fleischer and Willcox have authenticity and honesty cemented in their every glance, every wry gesture, every word that's said and every word left unspoken. In the play's microscopic study of the big theme of why people hurt themselves and others, the production is so funny and harrowingly truthful, it's a revelation.
Larissa Kokernot directs the sketches as playlets within the play, so that before each scene, when the actors glance into each other's eyes, and breathe together in order to find common space and energy, the production itself becomes a rite of passage.
GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES | By Rajiv Joseph | Presented by Rogue Machine, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., Mid-Wilshire | Sat.-Sun., 5 p.m.; Mon., 8 p.m.; through July 14 | (855) 585-5185 | roguemachinetheatre.org