Plays at STAGES and Garage Theaters Ponder Life's Persistent Questions

Let the masses turn to high-octane visuals, episodic weekly dramas and pretty, witty people in precious sitcoms. The cool kids know the theater is where we get the weighty, heady issues that address the fundamental question of what it is to be a fully realized human being.

We're talking, of course, about incest and mental illness. Two plays on local boards, Gruesome Playground Injuries and The House of Yes, deal squarely with these fun, lightweight subjects, albeit in far different tones. One is rimmed with terrible sadness; the other is a bouncy comedy with plenty of humor in a jocular vein. Both are also love stories. And in light of the parade of damaged characters in these plays, it seems love may be the most traumatic human condition of them all.

Rajiv Joseph is one of the hottest young playwrights in America, with theaters across the country mounting his plays; South Coast Repertory recently closed his latest, Mr. Wolf, and the Long Beach Playhouse closed his big hit, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, last weekend. Gruesome is smaller in scope than those two plays, but it still makes big points about the difficulty of human connection. Rarely have two star-crossed lovers been so hexed than Doug (Jasper Oliver) and Kayleen (Carolina Montenegro). Both are mired in pain: Kayleen's is the internal sort that manifests in cutting and suicide attempts, and Doug's is the external kind—he makes the Mayhem guy from All State Insurance's commercial seem as if he's living in a protective bubble. He can't even look at a roof without falling off or through it—or being struck by lightning while on it.

Pain is what drives the two together and keeps them apart. Even though their love isn't the romantic, passionate kind, it's still a palpable bond; two people utterly alone in the world find their only measure of comfort in someone equally as lost as they are. Oliver and Montenegro's nuanced performances, guided delicately by director Turner Munch, illuminate the real question raised in Joseph's words, the one that so many mired in real damaging relationships should really ask: Wouldn't they be better off running away in terror at the sight of each other?

There are some bumps in the production—the actors spend a great deal of time before the play and during scenes mumbling repetitive lines—that could be streamlined to keep up the intensity, but the Garage Theatre was generous enough to allow one reviewer to observe on the final dress, so maybe those have been ironed out. What was unmistakable is how much the playwright cares about these two insignificant people, basically Eleanor Rigbys, who, despite the impossible emptiness of their lives, still somehow find the resolve to carry on.

Even though Wendy MacLeod's The House of Yes turns out far more visceral in its rather predictable and forced ending, the road getting there is hilarious. Marty (Aaron McGee), the eldest son from a wealthy family in Washington, D.C., that lives across the street from one Kennedy or another, has brought his fiancée, Lesly (Kelsey Arnold), a doughnut-shop employee, home for Thanksgiving to meet his family. And what a family. There's his younger brother, Anthony (Adam Evans), an apparently simple kid with a subtle edge; Mrs. Pascal (Jill Cary Martin), who probably plays strip poker at the country club with Lucille Bluth; and his sister, Jackie O (Darri Kristin), a wise-cracking, mentally ill sparkplug with two obsessions: donning a replica of the brain-spattered outfit worn by Mrs. Kennedy that fateful November day in 1963, and her twin brother, Marty.

Even though the play, directed by Jack Millis, eventually loses steam and sputters to the aforementioned climax, there's a small dose of Harold Pinter-like Homecoming menace to the affair, and the comedic energy (particularly from Kristin, Martin and Evans) and What the Fuckness of some of the key plot points always keep things interesting.

Ambiguity permeates each play, both of which are longish one-acts. We never get a real sense of who any of these characters truly are, nor is there any attempt by the playwrights to justify or excuse the eccentric, if not perverse, actions of the characters. They all seem trapped in a nostalgic vise, unable to move on in their relative futures due to choices made in their pasts, choices that absolutely damaged them, but memories of which are all they have to cling to. While one play gets there through snappy one-liners and outrageous characters, and the other through a far bleaker portrayal, both wind up in the same place: the unbearable persistence of memory and the sobering realization that sometimes, the things that hurt us the most are the only things that truly make us feel alive.

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