Insults and Injuries: A Trio of Offbeat Off Broadway Shows Captivate and Confound

whippingman073r 0 Insults and Injuries: A Trio of Offbeat Off Broadway Shows Captivate and ConfoundThe injuries that befall Doug, the accident-prone boy and man in Gruesome Playground Injuries, are indeed gruesome. He loses an eye to fireworks; he impales his foot on a nail; he’s struck by lightning. But only one of his injuries can be fairly described as tragic: He doesn’t end up with the love of his life.

That’s the surprising sweetness in Rajiv Joseph’s odd and endearing, if slim, play, which opened Monday night at the Second Stage Theatre. Starring Pablo Schreiber and Jennifer Carpenter and directed by Scott Ellis, it is splendidly acted and crispy staged, with a spiky script that’s emotionally engaging if not entirely fulfilling.

We first meet Doug and his classmate Kayleen as 8-year-olds sequestered in the nurse’s office at St. Margaret Mary’s; he has split his forehead open after falling from the school’s roof; she has a stomachache. In eight scenes over 80 minutes, Mr. Rajiv’s script jumps back and forth in time to show us their sporadically intertwined lives from that first meeting to a final one, 30 years later. As kids they share a fixation on body parts and vomit; as teens they “practice” kissing together; as adults they visit each other in hospitals and mental institutions and funeral homes and have unsuccessful relationships with other people. Best friends in high school, they spend their lives circling each other, but they never quite line up.

Mr. Schreiber and Ms. Carpenter are fun to watch. They’re fine actors, sensitive and convincing as the adult Doug and Kayleen; thoroughly charming with the tics and enthusiasms of youth as the characters’ younger selves.

The transitions between scenes transpire onstage; Mr. Schreiber and Ms. Carpenter rearrange Neil Patel’s slick, clever set and apply the bandages and prostheses that signify Doug’s latest misfortune. It’s an effective device for telegraphing the passage of time and underlining Doug’s trauma. But for all those wounds, Gruesome Playground Injuries can feel a bit bloodless. It’s a character study more than a drama; the action mostly happens offstage. There’s no revelation or catharsis at its end.

Still, it’s a sharp study, a fascinating portrait of two wounded people, nicely constructed by Mr. Joseph to reveal the depths of both their dysfunctions and their connection. Like the scar from a gruesome injury, it says with you.

 

The Whipping Man, the end-of-the-Civil War melodrama that opened last night at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off Broadway space in City Center, grows from playwright Matthew Lopez’s discovery that in April 1865 Passover began just as Lee was surrendering at Appomattox Court House. And so Mr. Lopez invented a prosperous Jewish family in Richmond that taught its slaves to be Jews. As the war ends, the family’s scion straggles home, where he finds two of those slaves in residence. Together, the three men hold a seder.

It’s not every day that you encounter devoutly Jewish newly freed slaves, but Mr. Lopez has pulled off a nice feat: He somehow manages to take these unusual characters and produce a dull, tedious, cliché-ridden play.

It turns out there are similarities between the story of Jews freed from bondage in Egypt and blacks freed from bondage in America. The white master, shockingly, thinks his slaves were treated well; the former slaves feel otherwise. There are family secrets and occasional miscegenation and lots of hardship.

What there is not, however, is much insight. Nor is there effective acting-director Doug Hughes is apparently attempting to overcome the weak script with volume, resulting in aggressively overblown performances from André Braugher, as the wise old former slave, and Jay Wilkison, as his young erstwhile master. (André Holland is more nuanced as the sly younger former slave.)

The master set designer John Lee Beatty has produced a gorgeously detailed burned-out antebellum mansion of a set, with a mezuzah subtly affixed to its door post. It’s the best thing in the play, but it’s too bad he didn’t put some lamb’s blood on that door, too-it’s a house well worth passing over.

 

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is a late Tennessee Williams play that’s rarely produced, and the Roundabout Theatre Company’s new production, which opened Sunday at the Laura Pels Theatre, makes it easy to see why. It’s a weird, messy, confounding piece of work.

But director Michael Wilson’s beguilingly magic realist staging yields an intriguing and entertaining evening on the strength of an amazing performance by Olympia Dukakis. She is Flora Goforth, a drunk, doped-up and fabulously wealthy widow dictating her memoir and raging against death in a luxurious villa on the Amalfi coast. Ms. Dukakis lustily embraces the scenery-chewing role, her drawling Flora simultaneously earthy and regal, petty and grand. You’re put in mind of a late-life Truman Capote in drag, and her amazing, pitiful Kabuki dance-complete with kimono and black wig-is at once horrifying and sublime.

editorial@observer.com