Joan Marcus
February 01, 2011 at 05:00 AM EST

The two characters in Gruesome Playground Injuries, Rajiv Joseph’s spare, unchronological story of love and masochism, seem intent to disprove the notion that ”this hurts me more than it hurts you.” Doug and Kayleen start as a pair of 8-year-olds sequestered in the school nurse’s office, one for a gash in his forehead, the other for a perpetually upset stomach. They circle each other in sickly fascination, and thus begins their three-decades-long relationship founded upon bodily harm, grievous and otherwise.

Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter) and Pablo Schreiber (Tony-nominated for Awake and Sing!) must carry the show as its only two characters and, aside from the occasional wheeled-in hospital bed, its only stage fixtures. The set is minimalist and bathed in antiseptic fluorescence, like a cross section of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s Jupiter Room, and all costume changes take place in full view of the audience, performed as if they’re sacred rituals. It’s a stylized setup for a stylized play, which skips back and forth through time and through its characters’ injuries — losing an eye, gaining a limp — but there’s a heart beneath all the sterile aesthetics. Carpenter and Schreiber succeed in making these people fully flesh-and-blood, even if that flesh gets cut and that blood spills. They are vulnerable, poking and prodding each other’s physical and emotional wounds, externalizing their inner pain but unable to verbalize it.

Joseph is a bit of a theater wunderkind: His Pulitzer Prize-nominated Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is scheduled to open on Broadway in March, and Gruesome Playground Injuries shows a talent at work, deftly switching between humor and pathos. Unfortunately, the promise demonstrated in early scenes never truly pays off. Doug and Kayleen drift apart as the play’s two-steps-forward, one-step-back timeline pushes them into their 20s and 30s, and after a while only Doug’s gradual physical dismantling and Kayleen’s deteriorating mental health are enough to draw them together. At the same time, the narrative momentum also begins to unravel and the ending feels strangely abrupt for a story otherwise so rigidly structured. Still, there is plenty of pleasure to be gained from observing these characters’ pain. B

(Tickets: 2st.com or 212-246-4422)

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