Review: “Gruesome Playground Injuries” by Rajiv Joseph. Produced by Azeotrope and Serin Ngai. Directed by Desdemona Chiang. With Richard Nguyen Sloniker and Amanda Zarr. Now through August 11, 2013 at The Little Theater (Washington Ensemble Theatre space).
The young theater company known as Azeotrope, the joint creation of actor Richard Nguyen Sloniker, actress/producer Serin Ngai and director Desdemona Chiang isn’t very prolific. Their current production of Rajiv Joseph’s “Gruesome Playground Injuries” at Washington Ensemble Theatre’s Little Theater on 19th Avenue is only their third production in three years. But, their first collaboration, “Red Light Winter” staged at Theatre Off Jackson earned them strong reviews, and last year’s highly acclaimed production of “Jesus Hopped the A Train” as part of ACT’s Central Heating Lab, copped them baskets of Gregory, Footlight and Gypsy Awards. The company strives to provide opportunities for Asian-American theater artists, but interestingly enough, none of their produced work is specifically Asian-American themed; so far, Azeotrope hasn’t staged David Henry Hwang, adaptations of Amy Tan novels, or charmingly twee renditions of Asian folk tales or mythology. Instead, the company seems drawn to new, very contemporary pieces that depict ordinary people caught up in the problems of modern life. The characters tend to be realistic, humane and flawed and while the situations those characters are caught up in might be extreme, the approach of both the playwrights and Azeotrope seems to be that this is a natural reflection of life. Ordinary people frequently ARE caught up in extraordinary situations and the portrayal of these lives is fascinating…and, necessary.
That is certainly the case with the current play at hand, “Gruesome Playground Injuries” by Rajiv Joseph, the young playwright best known for “Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo”, the Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony nominated play that received acclaim for its well publicized 2011 Broadway production that starred Robin Williams. (It should also be noted that Washington Ensemble Theatre is staging “Bengal Tiger” as the premiere production of their 2013/14 season, this September.) “Gruesome” was Mr. Joseph’s next play after “Bengal Tiger” and while it didn’t get a Broadway run, the play did receive strong reviews and the playwright has earned a reputation as a major new talent. “Gruesome” is a smaller more intimate play than “Bengal Tiger”…it’s a two hander about a couple, Doug and Kayleen who meet at age 8 in the nurse’s office at their parochial elementary school and their ensuing relationship up to the age of 38. Doug is a daredevil and probable masochist who enjoys the pain of the many, many injuries he receives. Kayleen struggles with her own demons: her mother is dead, her father is unloving and she suffers from both stomach disorders and acute depression. “Gruesome” recounts the pair’s relationship over the course of 30 years as it bounces between different important moments in their life, sometimes jumping forward in time, then back, to present these pivotal exchanges. The quirky charms of the material (and the characters) and the depiction of this relationship are the chief attractions of the script. In lesser hands, the material could be cuter than thou and trite, and the vignette nature of each scene could end up feeling like bad sketch comedy, but Desdemona Chiang’s assured direction keeps the energy flowing from scene to scene. She does an excellent job of utilizing the limitations of the tiny stage at The Little Theater. The actors are always present, and at least one actor is always visible on stage as they change costumes from one scene to the other. It’s all presented very naturally and completely in character and roots both the performances and the production as a whole.
In fact, every aspect of this production is just exceptional. Ms Chiang’s direction is so grounded and real and visceral…there is such a terrific depth of intimacy in this production, something you seldom see in the theater but all three productions by Azeotrope have managed to portray intimate moments in a way that is realistic yet natural and believable. Ms Chiang’s work is aided by all the terrific design elements of this show including Christine Tschirgi’s simple but highly textural costume designs. And, Deanna Zibello won just praise and awards for her seemingly simple, but actually rather complex set for “Jesus Hopped the A Train” and here she gives us yet another example of how a simple idea (the set is a basically a spartan box divided into sections with the use of examining room type curtains) can convey so much in its simplicity. Jessica Trundy’s lighting is an integral part of the mood being conveyed by this production; it aids nuance when needed, as well as stark punctuation to highlight a particular mood or moment. The non-stop sound and music design of this show by Evan Mosher is both necessary, to cover the moments between the scenes as the actors change costume and rearrange set pieces, but it also adds so much to the overall experience of this fully integrated production. It’s an example of how all theater productions SHOULD be using sound design as part of the work they present and it’s just a brilliant piece of design. In fact, EVERY aspect of “Gruesome” is brilliantly designed and executed and integrated into the work as a whole. It would behoove every theater company in town to check out this production to see how you integrate all these elements, and the vital importance of interesting, vivid, complex and compelling elements of costume, set, lighting and sound design. It’s what makes theater interesting and artistic…and, theatrical.
As for the actors, both are superb. We’ve been singing the praises of Richard Nguyen Sloniker for years even when he’s trapped in dull, “nice” roles as kindly husbands, neighbors and straight men on other stages around town. It’s interesting that Mr. Sloniker, who’s blessed with both looks and demeanor that suggest the pleasant young man next door that you’d like your daughter to marry has only managed to break out of that rather dull actor’s rut by creating his own theater company and casting himself in challenging, interesting, edgy roles that showcase his talent. He does a terrific job here as Doug, the genial but warped pain/scar/injury addict who’s floundering in life and unable to completely connect with Kayleen. And, as Kayleen, Amanda Zarr is equally persuasive and commanding, managing to portray the wounded nature of the character with great depth and complexity without resorting to caricature or ingenue schtick. She’s fragile but she’s also very tough and Ms Zarr plays both aspects of the character with great nuance and skill. As a duo, the actors are superbly matched and function as a solid whole.
Obviously, I have great love and respect for this exceptional production. I don’t think “Gruesome Playground Injuries” is necessarily the best play ever written; the material in lesser hands could be quite dreadful if the comedic or dramatic aspects are overly exaggerated, but Azeotrope has done a brilliant job of correctly interpreting the material and creating a complete and fully engaging theatrical experience. It’s how all theater should be done and it’s a must see play for the intelligent theater goer. If there is a “Theater God”, then let some generous Microsoft millionaire give Azeotrope a million bucks so they can stage multiple productions year round. They’re the smartest and most artistically compelling theater company in town and deserve a bigger canvas for their benefit…and ours.