Pablo Schreiber on Gruesome Playground Injuries

The rough-and-tumble actor prepares for another demanding role.

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BRUISE TO ME Schreiber lives to fight another day.

BRUISE TO ME Schreiber lives to fight another day. Photograph: Joan Marcus

Pablo Schreiber was never a reckless kid, but a collision he had with a snowy British Columbia hillside when he was eight years old calls to mind the sort of foolhardy behavior that's a way of life for his daredevil character in Gruesome Playground Injuries. "To get to our bus was a mile-and-a-half walk, and it snowed," the actor recalls while sipping tea in his dressing room. "There was ice on the road that night, and I put my arms inside of my snow jacket and was doing pirouettes, just because. Of course I fell on my face, and my tooth went through my lip. I had to walk home three quarters of a mile and then drive for an hour to get to the hospital because we lived so far out in the woods."

Schreiber laughs lightly as he remembers the harrowing incident, which taught him that pain is something best avoided. But it's not a lesson that comes easily to Doug, the danger-loving character he plays from age eight to 38 in Rajiv Joseph's funny and wrenching play about two self-destructive friends. Jennifer Carpenter (of Showtime's Dexter) is Schreiber's partner in anguish.

Eight-year-old Doug and Kayleen meet cute in the nurse's office, when he's a bloody mess after riding his bike off the school roof and she's suffering from abdominal pains. Subsequent years bring further stomach trouble, a fireworks accident, pink eye, a lightning strike and more. Their friendship fades, but they can't quite quit each other, and as scenes jump back and forth in time, Doug's feelings for Kayleen transform him from wildly reckless youth into wounded adult.

"I think Doug hurts himself because ultimately he is a pretty lonely guy who wants people to like him," says Schreiber, 32, who's been involved with the play since he did a reading with Lily Rabe last fall. "I made the decision that when he rides his bike off the roof, that was his big stunt to impress everybody because he had just moved to this town. Being the guy who gets hurt becomes his shtick, and it turns into hurting himself to try to understand Kayleen's hardship and show her that he hurts as well."

It's the type of emotionally and physically brawny performance for which Schreiber has continually put his body and soul on the line. Past roles include his Tony-nominated turn as an idealistic young man in Awake and Sing! and the son who lusts after his youthful stepmother in Desire Under the Elms, as well as on HBO's gripping series The Wire and the much-buzzed-about new FX drama Lights Out, in which he plays the brother and manager of a boxer making a comeback.

Playwright Joseph was impressed by the actor's "magnetism as a performer and as an individual" and surprised by Schreiber's take on Doug. "What Pablo brought to it," Joseph notes, "especially as Doug enters his thirties, is a deep vulnerability, a kind of fractured soul that expanded the idea of the character for me."

That magnetism is apparent the day after the Lights Out premiere party and the first preview of Gruesome Playground Injuries, when Schreiber arrives at Second Stage Theatre in the early afternoon. Following all the activity of the previous day, he left his wallet in his dressing room (the guy at the deli swiped him into the subway that morning) but is sharp and unruffled, whether pointing out the artwork, courtesy of his two-year-old son, hanging above a mirror or answering a question about possibly doing a project with his older half brother, Liev.

"Other people have talked about it a lot more than we have," claims Schreiber, who can also be seen in the upcoming indie film Happythankyoumoreplease. "I've spent a lot of my career just trying to build my own esteem, and I guess now that I have that, I would consider doing something—but it would have to be the right project. What's the perfect project with two characters ten years apart and roles that are really great for both of us? Like True West."

That play would be prime material for Schreiber, whose approach to his profession has as much to do with emotional exposure as physical vigor. "For me, the process of acting has always been the opportunity to express myself and be vulnerable in front of people, which is a great kind of therapy—to show people elements of yourself that you might not express on a day-to-day basis. The simple ritual of it being a social experience where people come to watch it removes some of the taboo."

Gruesome Playground Injuries is at Second Stage Theatre through Feb 20.

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