"Reborning" is consistently intriguing in parts, but eventual histrionics don't effect as they should.

A curious new drama from rising playwright Zayd Dohrn, “Reborning” makes a striking, sinister first impression. But this one-act’s grapplings with mental illness, child loss and abandonment overburden a rather thinly developed frame. Making its debut at SF Playhouse after workshopping at the Public’s Summer Play Festival in New York City two years ago, it’s consistently intriguing in parts, but the eventual histrionics don’t effect as they should.

An SF Playhouse presentation of a play in one act by Zayd Dohrn. Directed by Josh Costello. Set, Nina Ball; lighting, Michael Palumbo; costumes, Miyuki Bierlein, composer/sound design, Cliff Caruthers; video, Kristin Miltner; props, Jacqueline Scott; doll designers, Cher Simnitt, Stef Baldwin, Illusions of Life. Opened, reviewed May 7, 2011. Running time: 80 MIN.

Josh Costello’s production starts out with an arrestingly provocative image: Watching her surgically precise ministrations via wall-projected vidcam, Kelly (Lauren English) sticks needles and other tools into the eye of a disturbingly realistic “baby.” She’s merely putting finishing touches on the latest meticulously crafted doll that her solo “Little Angels Nursery” business makes for customers who have diverse reasons for ordering them — often the dolls help people work through grief over real-life loss of an infant they want precisely (if lifelessly) replicated.

(A program addendum notes that scenario is actually rare in the “reborn doll artist” community, most buyers simply being avid collectors attracted by the extremely lifelike work of such craftspersons. But the fact that such a market even exists is creepy enough.)

Kelly lives and works out of her Queens apartment, as does boyfriend Daizy (Alexander Alioto), who specializes in a different kind of latex realism — suffice it to say they’re of an anatomically correct “adult toy” variety. He finds her work “a little bit disturbing”; she finds it “soothing.” He wants a real child; she doesn’t, for reasons eventually sussed.

Kelly’s latest client Emily (Lorri Holt), a brisk but likably frank businesswoman, eagerly awaits completion of her own commissioned doll. But she fusses over details, seeking some elusive lifelike element that might help her (as laid out in a late monologue the veteran Bay Area thesp socks over) complete a grieving process started decades ago.

“I can’t sculpt your memory” says prickly Kelly, who nonetheless confides another story of terrible infant suffering — her own, one horrific enough to have dominated New York Post headlines 20-odd years ago. She has no memory of those events. Yet she pops pills, smokes weed, drinks at all hours, worries Daizy with her increasing obsessiveness and frigidity. Her mental state only grows worse as she labors perfecting Emily’s “Eva,” eventually prompting a delusional meltdown impacting both boyfriend and client.

English effectively limns a complicated, increasingly disturbed character, but Kelly’s history and problems are so extreme they need even greater depth and focus to work dramatically, let alone for Dohrn to pull off his attempted final catharsis. Holt is expert as ever, though it’s not entirely convincing these two women would bond beyond their business agreement before Kelly goes off rails. As the amorous, devoted boyfriend, Alioto provides frequently delightful comedy relief. But scribe sometimes makes Daizy too flippant for the situations at hand, and we do wonder why someone so genially uncomplicated would choose such a neurotic lover.

Design contribs are thoughtful. “Reborn dolls” are provided by Illusions of Life, whose website — creepier than anything onstage — requires potential purchasers to fill out an “adoption application.”

Reborning

SF Playhouse, San Francisco; 91 seats; $50 top

Cast

Kelly- Lauren English
Daizy- Alexander Alioto
Emily- Lorri Holt
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