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The actors shine the most in Toronto production of Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries

The actors shine the most in Toronto production of Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries
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By Rajiv Joseph, directed by Chris Bretecher. Until Feb. 9 at Assembly Theatre, 1479 Queen St. W. theassemblytheatre.com

These are the first of the titular injuries that 8-year-old Doug (Choudhury) has sustained by riding his bike off the school roof, inspired by his hero Evel Knievel. He meets his classmate Kayleen (Lundy) in the school nurse’s office, where she’s hiding out with a tummy ache. It is the quality and veracity of the actors’ individual performances as well as the strong chemistry between them that makes Chris Bretecher’s production very much worth seeing. Lundy and particularly Choudhury do “kid acting” — which can so easily be cloying — with sensitivity and humour.

Choudhury’s Doug is overfull of enthusiasm, that out-of-control boy who acts everything out with his body, and whom you want to hug and send to his room at the same time. Lundy’s performance is necessarily subtler, a sensitive girl barely able to express her need for the friendship that Doug might be offering. They end up bonding by indulging her desire to touch his wounds — opening up the themes of intimacy and the relationship between physical and emotional openness that this 90-minute play explores. The subsequent scenes jump back and forth over 30 years of their shifting, stop-and-start friendship, most taking place in sites of medical care. He continues physically accident-prone, while she holds everything in.

This is the text that started to make American playwright Rajiv Joseph’s name before he really hit it big with Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which played on Broadway in 2011 with the late Robin Williams in the title role (yes, he played a tiger) and earned Joseph a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Gruesome Playground Injuries premiered in Houston in 2009, had a New York production two years later and has had several previous Toronto outings.

Some critics find it a slight text, a sort of Harry meets Sally rom-com with little else at stake. In a program note Bretecher points out the serious issues underlying the play: mental health, self-harm, substance abuse and consent. Indie company Leroy Street Theatre is producing the show in partnership with LOFT, a service organization for youth with health and substance abuse challenges. If we consider Doug and Kayleen as representative of a crisis in Western culture around destructive and self-destructive behaviours (fuelling the booming self-care industry), the play’s significance expands beyond this individual story.

For me, that all played out perhaps too much in deep background as I enjoyed the show, which puts an emphasis on the warmth in the characters’ relationship. The breaks between the scenes are a big part of what makes this play and production unique: during them the actors change clothes (costumes by Lindsay Dagger Junkin), reapply makeup (Choudhury goes through a lot of wet wipes as he simulates one injury after another in Rhonda Causton’s makeup design), and adjust Bretecher’s clever, economical set against recorded pop and rock music (sound design by Will Jarvis). There’s an ambiguity about who the performers are at these points (themselves or their characters?) that could be further explored.
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