The alarm went off in my head immediately.
Entering Cockroach Theatre's small playing space for "Gruesome Playground Injuries" (by Rajiv Joseph, author of the popular "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo"), we spot a young woman, Kayleen (Felicia Taylor), on the floor with a coloring book. She lies inches from the public seating, so that you may find yourself wanting to step over her to get to your chair.
Why is she there before the production begins? Is this supposed to help get us into the play? (It tells us nothing.) Or is it just a director's affectation?
After the lights go down, she holds up a sign: "Age 8: Face Split Open." Taylor then skips around the stage with such exaggerated enthusiasm that we can tell she's trying to portray an 8-year-old. Then pal Doug (Shawn Hackler) enters wearing a grotesque bloody head bandage. The two converse. Strange, though the dialogue is written in short bits like conversation, they don't seem to be really talking to each other.
The rest of the scenes - each proceeded by an onstage change in makeup and costume and a sign giving us our bearings ("Age 13: Eye Blown Out") - detail the characters' 30-year friendship. They're bonded by a penchant for self-abuse. He falls off a roof, shoots out an eye, gets struck by lightning; she has a tendency to cut herself up. At one point, she vomits into a pail, which makes him vomit, which makes them both look into the pail and admire how united their vomit has become. (When is the last time you saw a play that romanticized vomit?)
Hard to believe, but the script - dealing with the psychological injuries that are made physical - has a beautifully twisted charm. But obviously the subject matter needs a skillful touch.
Director Levi Fackrell never finds the right tone. Taylor tackles her dramatic scenes with such heaviness that you quickly tire of her. Hackler is intense one moment and making clownish visual jokes to the audience the next.
For all of the histrionics, we never believe these two people are among the walking wounded. The costume and makeup changes are so long that they sometimes feel lengthier than the scenes. They stop the play cold. How are we supposed to react to all this shifting of gears?
There are pockets of pleasing moments. But what ultimately does the show in is that we simply don't care. The script is an intriguing read, but Fackrell has an inconsistent concept, and the actors - they specialize in studied, stilted naturalism - don't connect.
Georgia Richardson's bloody makeup is frightfully realistic, though. And I really believed the two actors were vomiting.
Anthony Del Valle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.