“Can I touch it?” girl asks boy in the opening scene of Elements Theatre Collective’s latest production. The “it” in this case: a bloody head wound. From young New York playwright Rajiv Joseph comes Gruesome Playground Injuries, a dark comedy for two, delivered without intermission in eight brief scenes. The play spans 30 years of an unconventional friendship between Kayleen (Marie Ponce) and Doug (Justin Stark), whose first encounter at a junior high school dance results in mutual vomiting. As the story unfolds nonchronologically, it’s clear Doug has a bad habit of maiming himself: A firecracker goes off in his face, taking out one eye; he loses a front tooth while hammering; he’s struck by lightning during a rooftop climb in an electrical storm. Meanwhile, disturbed and moody Kayleen agonizes over his injuries, berates him for his stupidity, and questions whether she might possess inadvertent healing powers.
The play’s quick jumps through time require both actors to play preteen through middle age, and both Ponce and Stark perform the task admirably, leaping back and forth from childlike curiosity and bravado to the steely defenses and deep sadness of adulthood.
Joseph’s dialogue is fast and dirty, borrowing its pacing and tone from slam poetry. “You’re just a cracked dumbass with shit for brains,” Kayleen spits when she visits Doug in the hospital, post–firecracker incident. Though all the recriminations and the gore prove useful for skirting romantic clichés, neither character is sufficiently developed to inspire real sympathy. Joseph renders Doug and Kayleen more as caricatures than characters, and so while the comedy succeeds, the drama falters.
Nevertheless, it’s a fun choice for this emerging theater company, founded by twenty-somethings Sara Rademacher and Emily Jewell, who aim to increase access to the arts by putting on free, professional productions in unexpected venues. To that end, Gruesome Playground Injuries opened in the concrete courtyard behind Left Coast Books in Old Town Goleta. Sarah Jane Bennett’s minimal set of benches and boxes worked to transform the space from a playground to a bedroom to a sanitarium while the actors did their costume changes right on stage — makeup included. In the absence of amplification, Ponce and Stark had to contend with the ambient noise of squealing brakes, passing sirens, and the cheerful shouts emanating from the beer garden next door, all of which contributed to a refreshingly unconventional evening at the theater.