Reality Curve Theatre of Vancouver is making its first visit to New York City with Zayd Dohrn’s early play Reborning. Ten years ago, when Dohrn was unknown, this unsettling, if far-fetched, comedy-drama was part of the Summer Play Festival at the Public Theatre. Since that time, the playwright, who heads the graduate dramatic-writing program at Northwestern University, has penned a number of provocative yet non-preachy scripts that explore social issues through clashes—always fierce, sometimes violent—among recognizable characters.
With American theater currently on the rebound from generations of white male playwrights, Dohrn has had a hard time with critics. His 2017 play The Profane was trivialized by reviewers as a latter-day Abie’s Irish Rose. In truth, it’s a humane dramatization of prejudice, social insecurity, and fear. In that recent play—and also in Reborning, which he wrote while studying at Juilliard—the conflict is set in motion not by villains but by an array of characters with ardently held positions, some examined and others too deeply embedded for self-analysis. The characters’ mixed motives give them verisimilitude without undercutting their overall good faith.
Kelly (Emily Bett Rickards), the principal figure in Reborning, is a sculptor and near-recluse. Not long after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), she began lending a hand in her boyfriend’s business. The boyfriend, Daizy (Paul Piaskowski), is a RISD dropout who sells custom-fabricated dildos via the Internet. Having mastered the knack of creating realistic model penises, Kelly abandoned art for artisanship. Now she supports herself by making hyper-realistic baby dolls to clients’ precise specifications.
Emily (Lori Triolo, who also directs), a lawyer contending with menopause, has commissioned Kelly to create a doll resembling her infant daughter who died many years ago. Kelly, accustomed to dealing with clients by email, is dismayed when Emily arrives at her Queens apartment. Emily wants to examine the doll—Baby Eva—while it’s still under construction and to discuss finishing touches for maximal accuracy.
Emily talks about the lost baby and her long-festering grief, and tries to ferret out the reasons for Kelly’s reclusiveness and self-medicating habits. Emily’s lawyerly inquiry progresses rapidly from “[W]hat made you start doing dolls?” to “[W]hat happened” in your early life?
Kelly’s candor about what happened to her as a baby is shocking (both to Emily and to the audience): “Somebody poured Drano and bleach on my hands … to take off my fingerprints.” What’s more, “they stabbed me a bunch of times, with some kind of awl or screwdriver or something.”
In a series of relatively brief scenes, Reborning explores the indelible impact of grief and the burdensome nature of regret. There’s a vast distance between the Grand Guignol trauma of Kelly’s past and Emily’s more predictable, though genuinely tragic, experience. Both women, however, have been formed (and emotionally deformed) by those events in ways they can’t understand fully, if at all.
Dohrn credits Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang as his mentors at Juilliard. Reborning, though not derivative of those writers, has moments that reflect the earnestness of Norman’s Getting Out and flashes of wild and woolly humor reminiscent of Durang’s sketch-comedy sensibility. The three actors in this production are adept at both the serious and outlandish aspects of Dohrn’s script. Rickards (a star of the television series Arrow) and Piaskowski (also credited as a producer of the play) have comedic chemistry that’s effective ballast against the script’s emotional horrors.
The scenes between the two women and those involving all three characters lack the directorial focus and precision that make Rickard and Piaskowski’s duologues noteworthy. It’s not surprising that, on stage as Emily, Triolo lost the objectivity that makes her direction of the other parts of the play effective.
The physical production of Reborning is modest but adequate. Peter Triolo’s scenic design and Jo-Marie Triolo’s art design forgo the sophisticated video features and realistically detailed dolls described in Dohrn’s script. The sound design by Matthias Falvai contributes mightily to the uneasy atmosphere of Dohrn’s story; and the raucous between-scenes music (by the band Bunny Punch, supervised by Heather Smith) keeps the audience’s nerves a-jangle while stagehands rush around in the dark.
This limited run of Reborning, supported by the Canada Council for the Arts (among others), is welcome both as an introduction to Reality Curve and a second look at an early work of an exceptional playwright who’s still an emerging talent. It’s also a reminder to New York audiences that North American theater thrives in many other places, including Vancouver.
Reborning runs through Aug. 3 at the SoHo Playhouse (15 Vandam St). Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays; there will be a matinee at 2 p.m. on Saturday, July 27. For information and tickets, call (212) 691-1555 or visit sohoplayhouse.com.