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Michael Justen and Michelle Kaufer's multimedia theatre piece, inspired by true events, falls somewhere between gritty docudrama and flashy MTV music video. It's a harrowing glimpse at the hard-knock lives of young runaways, a mosaic of vignettes depicting squalor in the city. Occasionally leavened by ironic humor, it is, by and large, a wallow in the ugly details of these hellish existences, offering only superficial references to the deplorable home lives that caused the youths to flee. It's somewhat like the experience of watching a brutal accident alongside the freeway—though you can't look away at the time, you ask yourself later why you endured watching it.

Justen directs, achieving striking imagery and moments of great power, aided by a superb ensemble. The effect is intermittently heartrending, but the repetitious and randomly juxtaposed episodes quickly begin to feel circuitous. There are snippets of narrative, but their cumulative impact is less than cohesive. Adding to this impression are the songs interspersed throughout: Almost all of them are shrill laments, with the characters wailing like animals in pain to express the futility and despair of their plights. The single-monikered Gunner accompanies the songs (written by him and by others) and steps into the action to play the scumbag pimp, Ash, who forces the young men and women to prostitute themselves, while using them for his own lustful satisfaction. The runaways come from all walks of life, falling into a spiral of drug addiction, self-hatred, guilt, and the horrible reality of doing virtually anything to survive.

Among the standouts in the brave cast are Justen as a bitter and homophobic punk, Renette Johnson as an impregnated African-American girl, Ian Kitz as a brain-dead dope fiend, and Joey Borgogna as a frightened, sweet-spirited child trapped in a depraved teenager's body. The meticulously detailed urban-wasteland set by Borgogna, Kaufer, and Justen is a marvel, enhanced by Matt Richter's ambient lighting. There are indeed compelling stories to be told in this milieu, and the creators appear to have the passion to tell them, but they need to move beyond overwrought melodrama and unrelenting sordidness to convey something meaningful about this tragic social malady.

"The Playground," presented by The Greenwich Group at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 & 7 p.m. Apr. 29-May 28. $20-25. (323) 960-7753.

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