The story centers on Doug, a self-destructive and accident-prone eccentric (Erik Lurz), and his depressed and anxious childhood pal, Kayleen (Betty-Jane Parks). The script penned by Pulitzer-nominee Rajiv Joseph's takes us into their troubled, star-crossed lives, spanning three decades, from their first encounter in the clinic of a Catholic school to their beleaguered adulthood. Their combined and oddly complementary psychological issues cause them to grow in love while unintentionally bruising one another.
Such conflicts could be too morose in the wrong hands, but the actors make it work. Through their honest and dynamic performances, we get to know Doug and Kayleen as lovable misfits.
The play's most annoying flaws lie instead with its script and a few directorial choices. Joseph's intentionally disjointed series of non-chronological flashbacks are unsettling but ultimately come together and feel filtered like memories. The narrative is compelling from a writer's standpoint, even if its episodic nature creates problems with momentum during key moments. Joseph lurches back and forward in time, resulting in several costume and set changes. The actors change clothes and rearrange pieces in semi-darkness while staying in character. It's an intriguing choice that lends to the intimacy of the production (though my companion thought it was unnecessarily distracting).
Some of the complications are drawn with broad, heavy strokes, invoking over-the-top calamity and melodrama; yet much of it is tender and subtle. The dialogue dragged at times during the Sunday matinee performance we attended. One audience member in our row even rested her head on her partner's lap and closed her eyes. There were too many pregnant pauses. Thankfully, Lurz and Parks brought us back with their nuanced portrayals. Parks is brilliant in her fragility and Lurz is often heroic, full of heart and hilarious, bringing some levity to what could be an overly depressing play (his is among the best performances I've seen in a long time). The strength of both actors' performances owe to Anna Brennen's skillful direction. You can tell she worked with them to bring them in the moment and dig into the messy raw recesses of their psyches.
Brennen succeeds with the more visceral aspects of the play, but some of her technical choices could use some retooling. As said, she could get the pace moving, and she should let up on the histrionics.
All in all, Gruesome Playground Injuries is a touching but imperfect play that does its job in exposing the horrors of heartbreak and how life's injuries can lead us to hurt the ones we love most — and bring us closer once we are brave enough to let down the walls and share them.
Gruesome Playground Injuries runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. through Oct. 30. Stageworks is at the Grand Central in Channel District, 1120 E. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, 813-251-8984, $24.50, stageworkstheatre.org.