First things first: Congratulations to Off the Wall Productions for the opening of its new and handsome performance space in Carnegie. Since 2007, the company has been presenting surprisingly contemporary and adult fare in the relatively conservative city of Washington ... or "Little Warshington," as we Pittsburghers say. This season, it's pulled up stakes and rehabbed a Carnegie property into a deluxe theater with all the latest technical gewgaws and a swanky, expansive lobby/café.
But theater's not all about the accoutrements, and the reason I went was for the Pittsburgh premiere of Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuries.
Joseph was a 2010 Pulitzer finalist for his play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. And I will say that the man can write. This intermissionless play is 90 minutes long, and it's safe to say there's not a wasted word or action. The play's scenes come at you in a nonlinear way and, thanks to Joseph's purposefully elliptical style, arranging the puzzle pieces into a narrative turns each audience member into an active participant.
Which is a good thing because, when all's said and done, Gruesome is mining a well-tapped vein. Kayleen and Doug, you see, are in love, but internal and external forces keep them apart. We meet up with them at approximately five-year intervals, from age 8 to 38 (although the scenes aren't chronological) and watch as they struggle to find happiness in a bleak world.
There's nothing particularly wrong with Gruesome. And perhaps if you, unlike me, haven't sat through more than 3,500 shows in your life, the whole boy/girl/love/misery thing might seem a little fresher. Certainly Joseph's skill as a writer goes a long way toward sprucing it up ... although I wasn't crazy about his "gimmick" (and the reason for the title): Each meeting is occasioned by a different medical problem, and usually takes place in a medical facility. It might work on paper, but after a while you do feel like you've tuned into the Telethon Channel.
Still, the evening's chief pleasure is seeing the terrific Off the Wall production, directed with a strong, but unseen, hand by Maggie Balsley. Given the slightly contrived nature of the script, Balsley makes it feel natural and unforced. (Except for the cutesy-wutesy scene changes. I don't know if the idea is Joseph's or Balsley's, but knock it off.)
Erika Cuenca and Tony Bingham, playing our star-crossed lovers, provide deeply felt and perfectly calibrated performances. I especially enjoyed them for what they didn't do; often when a playwright's style is as indirect as it is here, actors (and God bless 'em!) like to fill in the hole with lots of emoting, just so we all get it. But Cuenca and Bingham demonstrate a prodigious (and welcome) faith in the writer.
So, once again: Congratulations, Off the Wall — and welcome to the big city!