“Dodgy prawns,” insists the narrator in Replay, the affecting solo show written and performed by Nicola Wren, were the cause of her violent physical reaction upon hearing of a man’s suicide. It wasn’t pregnancy or anything else. The narrator, a woman police officer (identified only as W in the program), assures the audience that she is made of sterner stuff than to be shaken by the emotional impact of meeting the wife and daughter of the man, who took his life earlier that day. Dodgy prawns: This is her story, and she is sticking with it. As W describes in painful detail the personal turmoil surrounding her visit to the London home, one begins to suspect the prawns may be receiving a bum rap.
W works for the London Metropolitan police department, and during her free time she prepares interview responses for promotion to sergeant. In addition, she has been assigned a partner, who tends to share a bit too much about his marital relations and his wife’s pregnancy. He always knows, for example, when his wife is pregnant because “she pukes after sex.” As if that is not enough, the narrator has to contend with occasional eruptions of crime on her London beat.
While stressful, however, none of these developments seems to be the cause of her emotional and physical distress. She is faced with much more pressing existential questions.
There are no spectral presences or spooky apparitions, but in many ways Replay takes the form of a ghost story. The events of the play take place on and following W’s birthday, and among the various cards and gifts she receives is a tape recorder and cassette from her mother. The audiotape contains a birthday greeting her brother had made more than 10 years earlier, before his own death. She is flooded with silly memories, shared music recollections and anguished remembrances. Indeed, hearing her dead brother’s voice upsets the suppressed phantasms and haunted thoughts of her childhood.
Reliving childhood incidents and sharing her memories of her brother, who seemed to exude joy and insouciance while he was alive, the narrator wrestles with these demons. Nonetheless, there is therapeutic healing, the play suggests, in the revisiting, retelling, and, of course, replaying the stories of our past. In fact, a lovely moment occurs near the end of the performance in which the audience sees that the act of sharing our experiences is the gift we can give others confronted with similar circumstances.
Wren is a warm and lively performer, and she is a disarming raconteur for the hour-long show. Theatrics are kept to a minimum, and as directed by George Chilcott, the bare-bones production keenly highlights the importance of community and storytelling. The audience surrounds the space on three sides, and Jen McGinley’s scenic design consists of a single metal bench. There are a few lighting effects (designed by Tom Kitney) and periodic sound cues (provided by Max Perryment) to differentiate time and place, but the emphasis is on the connection between the storyteller and the audience. Consequently, Wren often engages individual audience members directly as a reminder of our shared presence.
The writing is generally quite strong, and what the play lacks in lyricism and poetry, it makes up for in sincerity and specificity. To both its credit and detriment, though, Replay is not excessively sentimental. Certainly, there are moving moments in the play especially as the audience grows to appreciate the extent of the bond between the siblings. But (and I write this as a person who watches This Is Us with a full box of Kleenex beside me) the monologue does not offer the catharsis that shared grief may produce.
In the end, Replay is a reminder that emotional ulcers can flare up when least expected. The most effective treatment can be found in simple acts of humanity. In any case, and most important, watch out for dodgy prawns.
Brits Off Broadway presents Replay through May 13 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and more information and tickets, visit www.59e59.org.