He knows he might scare away some trepid theatregoers with a play called Gruesome Playground Injuries, but Rajiv Joseph is a sucker for a punchy title. "There are actually way more gruesome things on other stages this season," he says. "But audiences looking for a little gruesomeness won't be disappointed either."
In the case of Gruesome Playground Injuries, now playing at New York City's Second Stage Theatre, Joseph came up with the title before the story had taken shape. "I was having drinks with an old friend of mine," recalls the playwright, who recently had Gruesome produced at Houston's Alley Theatre and at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC. "He was telling me stories about the many bizarre mishaps that have left scars all over his body, and I realized that if you were like him, you could mark the chapters of your life with injuries. As soon as he got up to get us more drinks, I took out a piece of paper and wrote down the title of the play."
Instead of the midnights and cups of coffee celebrated in Rent's "Seasons of Love," Gruesome's twosome, longtime friends Doug and Kayleen, measure their life in stitches, scars and hospital stints. In an empathetic effort to match Kayleen's internal agony, which includes intense stomachaches, daredevil Doug makes himself susceptible to an array of disfiguring accidents. "When Doug cracks his head open or loses an eye, he feels he can share Kayleen's pain," Joseph explains.
Tony nominee Scott Ellis directs Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter) and Pablo Schreiber (Tony-nominated for Awake and Sing!), who play the damaged duo from ages 8 to 38 in a series of non-chronological scenes. "Not only must they portray many different ages, but they literally never leave the stage, so this play is emotionally and athletically demanding," says Joseph, who adds that it's also funny. "Without humor, you'd be faced with a pretty grim narrative."
Following Gruesome — his third play produced by Second Stage after All This Intimacy and Animals Out of Paper — Joseph makes his Broadway debut with Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, which opens in March and stars Robin Williams as the titular cat. This reality has yet to set in for the 36-year-old Ohio native, thanks in part to his distracting day job as a writer on the third season of Showtime's Nurse Jackie, his first foray into television.
"Luckily, I haven't had time to sit and brood over the fact that I have these major productions coming up," he says. "One of these days, it's going to hit me." And when it does, here's hoping it leaves a mark.
Playbill, January 2011 issue.