To be sure, there are examples of talented playwrights who have also been able to tread the boards without tripping over their feet, or tongues. Harold Pinter, Noël Coward, Tracy Letts: they all come quickly to mind. Some theater historians have even argued that Shakespeare might have been a pretty good actor, too. But, still, it’s exceedingly rare to find a playwright like Nicola Wren, who can bring her words to life with as much passion and grace as she set them down.
In Replay, which Wren delivers as a 60-minute monologue, she portrays an ambitious London police officer, known simply as W in the program, who, as the play begins, introduces herself by popping up from a bench like an uncoiled spring and exclaiming, with the deepest conviction, “prawns,” as if in answer to a question nobody in the audience asked. It turns out the reason crustaceans are so intensely on her mind is because she’s recently vomited up a lot of them, which, after some reflection, she now attributes to their potentially “dodgy” quality. But, as any good police officer knows, details matter, and, so, when W finally tells us what else preceded her queasy stomach, it becomes obvious that last night’s dinner wasn’t the real culprit.
You see, right before getting sick, W had been called, along with her Neanderthal partner, to the home of a man who killed himself. Adding to the magnitude of the tragedy, the man left behind a wife and little girl, an event which has a personal echo for W whose big brother Jamie committed suicide when she was also a child.
From this point, the arc of the story Wren tells is fairly straightforward as W begins to unravel the emotional knots that have kept her from coming to terms with Jamie’s death. What’s extraordinary, though, is how vividly Wren unravels these knots, narratively filling the mostly open space around her with W’s observations and memories.
The latter are most affectingly summoned by a tape recorder W’s mother sends to her. It contains an old birthday message from Jamie (voiced by Mark Weinman) that transforms W into her eleven-year-old self. Soon, she is reliving a special day in London between her and Jamie that is heartbreaking to watch because it perfectly captures, in a beautifully idyllic way, a younger sibling’s love for an older one.
Lighting designer Tom Kitney and sound designer Max Perryment give our imaginations some able assistance during this flashback scene and others, helping us to distinguish between the then and now of W’s existence. As for director George Chilcott’s staging, it nicely heightens the play’s intimacy by keeping Wren bouncing around the tiny black-box theater, as she directly addresses the audience, and sometimes even ends up a part of it.
Though when it comes to developing intimacy, without a doubt, Wren’s words and performance do most of the heavy lifting. Go see her, because she really is a dramatic unicorn.
Replay (through May 13, 2018)
2018 Brits Off Broadway Festival
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: one hour with no intermission