Friday, July 12, 2019

41 (2019-2020): Review: REBORNING (seen July 11, 2019)

“A Doll’s House”

Once again, going to the theatre taught me something I never knew before. Reborning, the title of this would-be psychological chiller by Zayd Dohrn, refers to an actual thing. (Dohrn, for the record, is the son of oldtime radicals Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn of Weather Underground notoriety.) That, for the similarly ignorant, is the creation by specialty sculptors of photorealistic dolls of infants, usually deceased ones.

One purpose is so grieving loved ones can use them as a means of dealing with their loss. Yes, it’s freaky, and the freak factor is implicit in Dohrn’s play, which exploits such an arrangement. Most of the chill you’ll feel, however will be from the A/C, not the writing or production at the Soho Playhouse. 
Emily Bett Rickards. Photo: Russ Rowland. 
The play, originally staged as part of the Summer Play Festival at the Public Theater in 2009, with no less than Katherine Waterston as Kelly, Greg Keller as Daizy, and Ally Sheedy as Emily, ties these three characters together in an odd but nonetheless reasonaly plausible relationship centered on the ineffable bonds between mothers and their offspring.
Emily Bett Rickards, Paul Piaskowski, Lori Triolo. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Kelly was abandoned in a dumpster by her mother as a child, with numerous screwdriver-caused holes in her abdomen. She earns her living as a dollmaker (but not like Jane Fonda in the movie of that name), using photos of her late subjects to recreate their every feature, down to the texture of their hair, the sweat in their fleshy folds, and the rosiness of their cheeks. She wears rubber gloves because her abusive parent also obliterated her fingertips, killing all feeling in her hands (if not her troubled soul).

As played by Emily Bett Rickards, she’s attractive in a funky, tank top-wearing, dyed red hair, tattooed kind of way. She may have been in rehab but she still drinks heavily, smokes weed, and pops pills, struggling to handle whatever demons may be disturbing her. Those demons lately have cooled her sexual heat with Daizy (Paul Piaskowski), the boyfriend in whose loft she lives and sculpts.
Lori Triolo, Emily Bett Rickards. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Her worktable is equipped with a video camera whose close-up images of the doll’s features are projected at length on a screen she observes across the room. Those images, showing her dabbing and poking at the face and eyes of a doll, are initially disturbing because the doll’s blown-up cheeks and eyes look so real. The impression soon fades, especially as the prop doll she employs, when held up where we can see it, looks so ordinary, shabby even. This technical drawback is among the production’s biggest problems, preventing belief in the authenticity of what transpires.

A limp excuse for humor in this mostly dreary play is provided by Daizy’s profession: he's a sculptor of latex dildos. He even wears one on his first entrance. It’s his idea of a joke, you see, as it takes a second before he realizes that the person he’s dicking around with isn’t Kelly but one of her clients. She’s Emily (Lori Triolo), a well-dressed, middle-aged attorney, who commissioned a doll of the child she lost lo these many years ago.
:Paul Piaskowski. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Kelly, who takes her work seriously, is extremely accommodating to her clients, willing to make even the slightest adjustments in her dolls to achieve full satisfaction. But nothing she does to fulfill Emily’s obsessive desires gets her full approval, driving Kelly to offer Emily a full refund. Just like shopping at Bed Bath and Beyond!

The deepening relationship between Kelly and Emily begins to weigh on the dollmaker, leading her to suspect that Emily may actually be the mother who abandoned her. Her behavior begins to show signs of even further instability—some it so sudden it seems completely contrived.
Emily Bett Rickards, Paul Piaskowski. Photo: Russ Rowland.
After the earnest Daizy puts aside his dildos for the real thing and gets Kelly pregnant, he mediates between Emily, the mother who needs a replica of her dead daughter, and Kelly, the abandoned child who needs a real mother.

On paper, the hour and a quarter Reborning embodies a promising idea for a tense drama of parental love and loss, and the lengths to which people will go to deal with the trauma of grief, even when to others’ eyes they seem excessive if not pathological. Dohrn’s play presents the problem but does little to dig beneath its surface.

The physical circumstances of Kelly’s unusual profession—including offhand jokes about the movies’ scary Chucky doll—certainly have interest. But the holes in Kelly’s abdomen (indicated by realistic makeup) are matched by holes in Dohrn’s script. For example, a lot is made by Daizy about how DNA testing would resolve Kelly’s suspicion regarding Emily’s being her mother. But why doesn’t he simply sneak a bit of organic material (her spit in his eye, mayhap) and not bother dealing with her refusal to provide it?
Lori Trialo, Emily Bett Rickards. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Anyway, I’m taking this flatly written, flatly acted (aside from the spunky Rickards, of TV’s “Arrow”), and flatly directed (by the actress playing Emily) play too seriously. Very little about the production other than its reborning premise is distinctive. That includes Peter Triolo’s so-so setting, with its upstage wall including an elevator fronted by a metal, cross-hatched gate.

One wonders, by the way, why the elevator is always there for exiting characters but, when someone’s entrance is signaled on the intercom, needs time to reach the apartment. Does it always have to descend before rising again? And why, one also wonders, has lighting designer Aaron Porter, whose illumination my lighting-aware plus-one commended, kept the interior of said elevator black? I kept thinking those who entered it were stepping into an abyss.

Perhaps a more polished performance, with a tighter ensemble and more interesting byplay, might produce a viable version of Reborning. For now, though, the play is a stillborn requiring a master team of reborners to make it look alive.

Soho Playhouse
15 Vandam St., NYC
Through August 3