Many Holocaust survivors have harrowing tales of persevering against the odds. But in few such stories does courage shine through in quite the same way as in Carrie Robbins’ multifaceted play, “The Diamond Eater,” about a jeweler who swallows his precious stones in order to retrieve them later for barter.
The one-act drama, which has been polished by the playwright since it was first read at La MaMa in 2012, opens this weekend at the HERE Arts Center in Soho, along with “Sawbones,” also by Robbins, about a Civil War soldier who needs an amputation from a Northern doctor.
“The Diamond Eater,” directed by Tazewell Thompson, is based on a story by Robbins’ late husband, R.D. Robbins, a colorectal surgeon turned short story writer. In the tale, which is based on a true story told to him by one of his patients, a Jewish doctor (Timothy Roselle) in a concentration camp is forced by the Nazis to transplant the kidney of a Roma into that of a Jew (Eric Kuttner).
When the doctor opens up the Jew’s body, he is stunned to find diamonds inside. The physician and patient collude with each other to outwit the Nazis; the doctor sews the diamonds into a natural cavity inside the jeweler’s body.
Decades after the Holocaust, the real-life jeweler showed up at Dr. Robbins’ proctology office in Manhattan, complaining of terrible pain.
Carrie Robbins is a renowned costume designer; she has worked on more than 30 Broadway shows, including “Agnes of God” and “Yentl.” She grew up in Baltimore, where she evinced a talent for drawing at an early age.
“My father told me that the Nazis had valued portrait artists,” she recalled. “So I could save us if a knock ever came on the door.” After earning degrees in both art and theater from Penn State, she went on the Yale School of Drama.
“Writing is, for me, just another form of storytelling,” she reflected. “It’s an expansion of what I always did — with fabric, shoes, makeup, wigs, and jewelry — to bring a character to life.” In “Diamond Eater,” she noted, “You see the desperation of someone to survive, as illustrated through the battle that he literally waged within himself.”
The sharp-edged but black humor of the piece has a decidedly Jewish flavor. For example, the main character starts with 17 stones, but some get lost over time, leaving him with only 10. “When he swallows the 10th one, he calls it a full meal,” Robbins said. “This kind of humor is absolutely indigenous to Jewish people. Jews can find humor in the bleakest situations.”
“The Diamond Eater” and “Sawbones” run at HERE, 145 Sixth Ave. Performances are Wednesdays at 2 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8:30 p.m., and Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. For tickets, $18, call (212) 352-3101 or visit www.here.org.