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Originally published July 30, 2013 at 9:49 AM | Page modified July 30, 2013 at 10:59 AM

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In ‘Gruesome,’ love and dysfunction meet

A review of the Seattle troupe Azeotrope’s staging of Rajiv Joseph’s “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” through Aug. 11, 2013

Seattle Times theater critic

THEATER REVIEW

‘Gruesome Playground Injuries’

By Rajiv Joseph. An Azeotrope production, through Aug. 11, The Little Theatre, 608 19th Ave. E., Seattle; $25 (800-838-3000 or www.brownpapertickets.com).

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Extreme behavior is the stuff of drama, and the theater of psychological dysfunction has long been a booming enterprise. (Ibsen anyone? Euripides?)

You could diagnose Rajiv Joseph’s fierce one-act “Gruesome Playground Injuries” as a patient riddled with clinical disorders — from deep depression to daredevil masochism.

But the play is also a piercing love story, of sorts. And it is a showcase for two actors who make us care about people united, and pulled apart, by crippling obsessions.

Azeotrope’s local debut of the unsparing work has those actors in Richard Nguyen Sloniker and Amanda Zarr. And in Desdemona Chiang it has a meticulous director of tales from the darker zones of the psyche, as her other gripping Azeotrope outings (“Red Light Winter,” and “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train”) have shown.

Like a far bleaker version of the “Same Time, Next Year” rom-com, “Gruesome Playground Injuries” shuffles the calendar of a several-decades bond.

Doug (Sloniker) meets Kayleen (Zarr) in a school nurse’s office when they are 8. He’s an accident-prone extrovert, who just slashed his cheek on the playground. The sullen Kayleen has a stomachache, and is revolted by and drawn to Doug’s bloody wound and overtures of friendship.

That pretty much sets the tone of their relationship, played out in sporadic but intense encounters. In scenes out of chronological order, the two meet (in hospital rooms, a funeral home) to spar, spat, and try haltingly to rescue one another.

When Doug’s self-destructive stunts put him in a coma, Kayleen appears to lay on hands. When she’s in a mental hospital, he’s an unexpected visitor.

Often, despite “gruesome” scrapes, Doug seems the healthy, positive one, wooing the jammed-up, depressive girl of his dreams. Yet sometimes Kayleen is less crazed. If they balanced each other out, their compounded agony would be unbearable long-term.

Joseph (who won a Pulitzer Prize for his earlier “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”) keenly traces the ricocheting dynamics between two damaged souls.

His unsparing dual character study is affecting, if at heart static. There are potential laughs here at compulsive quirks and ironic realizations. But Chiang sticks to a more sober dissection of anguish and attraction.

Sloniker nails Doug’s ardor, desperation, masochistic bravado in a very physical turn that ends with a quiet gut punch. Zarr is his mercurial match. Her face and body language sharpen and stiffen as Kaylee’s armor locks on, and soften when her misery briefly loosens.

Deanna Zibello’s set of beds and shifting curtains, and Jessica Trundy’s lighting, enhance the mood and pacing. And Evan Mosher’s subtly textured, electro-soundscape provides marvelous musical transitions, and respites.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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