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Theatre in Review: Reborning (Reality Curve Theatre/SoHo Playhouse)

Lori Triolo, Emily Bett Rickards. Photo: Russ Rowland.

Zayd Dohrn's plays are notable for sharp-eyed observations about cultural and religious differences; in contrast, Reborning focuses on a rather more intimate situation, to bizarre effect. The heroine, Kelly, is an artist who supports herself by making custom dolls that allow her clients to memorialize children who have grown up or, more often, died. These are no off-the-shelf items: Kelly -- by her own admission afflicted with a touch of OCD -- imbues her creations with an almost eerie level of detail. For example, Emily, her current client, admires the little stork bites worked into the recreation of her late daughter, Eva. Such meticulousness is the secret of Kelly's success, which involves catering to an often-desperate clientele: We are told that one former customer can be found New Jersey malls, wheeling around her doll in a pram.

Kelly's live-in lover, Daizy (a man, despite the name), considers her career "a little bit disgusting," although he should talk, since he supports himself by making replicas of penises. (Kelly says Daizy's customers "buy them for their girlfriends, as jokes, I guess. Or whatever. Hang them on the wall. Like a deer head." It's safe to say that neither of them is putting that art school training to the best use.) This doesn't stop him from categorizing her business as "a perfect symbol for some kind of post-feminist capitalist nightmare," adding, "women in Africa lose half their kids within a year, all right? To diarrhea! Know what they do? They get knocked up again. Right away. They don't have time to raise a baby out of plastic!" But Kelly, a tough-talking, hard-living type -- her idea of being in recovery involves plenty of weed and morning shots of booze -- is undaunted, lecturing Daizy on the concept of the fetish object. (Kelly wonders, "You never read Freud?" "No," Daizy replies. "I went to RISD. I can't read.")

Kelly's grasp of Freudian theory is a tad ironic, since she exhibits plenty of basket case tendencies. Quite apart from her issues with addiction -- she has, apparently, been in rehab once, and Daizy threatens at one point to summon her adoptive parents for an intervention -- her current project is gradually causing her to become unhinged. Emily, who admires Kelly's craft, weirdly comparing it to Picasso and Rodin, keeps pushing for a greater level of detail in the rendering of Eva. (The script struggles to explain why Emily, two decades after Eva's death, suddenly needs a lifelike copy. "Last year, I started getting these hot flashes," she says. "And it all came rushing back. That need." It's a brave male playwright who attributes any female character's motivations purely to hormonal changes.) Unusually for Kelly, she opens up to Emily, revealing her own past, which involves horrific abuse and abandonment. This triggers something in her, causing her to obsessively devote herself full-time to fulfilling Emily's wishes. Daizy, noting that they haven't had sex for "28 days, three hours, 46 minutes," looks on nervously, becoming positively alarmed when Kelly forgoes food and sleep, develops inappropriately possessive feelings about her creation, and hurls an accusation at Emily that would be disturbing if it made any sense.

Whatever the best way may be of treating this unappealing situation, Reborning heads in several directions at once. Dohrn, whose dialogue is reliably snappy, treats it with humor at first. Later, the action veers into devil-doll thriller territory, although rather half-heartedly. Melodrama takes over in the later passages, as Kelly heads toward something like a nervous breakdown. There's something unintentionally hilarious about Daizy, looking at Kelly, who has been reduced to a sobbing mess after a stretch of erratic behavior, and saying, "A kid would be lucky as hell to have you for a mom!" It speaks for itself that he brings up Britney Spears in comparison.

All three cast members bring more conviction than you might expect to these emotional exertions. Emily Bett Rickards captures both Kelly's hard-boiled exterior and the rather more uncertain person within. Even when Daizy is obviously living in denial, Paul Piaskowski brings to the character an attractively offhand manner and wry sense of humor. (When Kelly insists that she is "nuts," he replies, "But lots of people are. Believe me. I come from a very normal family, and they're worse.") Emily is, in many ways, the trickiest character, her intrusion into Kelly's life is not very believable, but Lori Triolo goes a long way toward suggesting the mid-life regrets that drive her insistence on attaining the most detailed copy of her long-gone Eva. Triolo, who also directed, can't do much with some of the script's cornier bits, like when the strait-laced Emily, left alone, furtively picks up Kelly's joint and takes a toke, screaming when caught unawares by the penis-toting Daizy. She has also signed off on a production design -- scenery by Peter Triolo, art design by Jo-Marie Triolo, and lighting by Aaron Porter -- that is pretty basic. (No costume designer is credited.) Matthias Falvai's sound design, which underscores scenes with music -- including, most maddeningly, Brahms' Lullaby -- is sometimes actively grating.

Dohrn has explored the gulf between Eastern and Western cultures in Outside People and the conflicts between religious and secular Muslims in The Profane; if neither play was a total success, each showed a strong grasp of its central issues. Reborning is, possibly, a more personal work, if only because the situation and characters are so strange. (The whole of idea of dolls as replacement children sounds like a Style Section story waiting to be written, but until then I'm not going to give it much credence.) Whatever he is trying to say -- about art, motherhood, child abuse, or modern relationships -- the result isn't nearly as lifelike as one of Kelly's dolls. --David Barbour

(15 July 2019)

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