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New York theater festival features Northwestern filmmaker’s play about Wilhelm Reich

David Tolchinsky, Writing for Screen and Stage Program director, walks the talk with new play
An Attempt to Heal in the Contemporary World
An Attempt to Heal in the Contemporary World

With a new play destined for the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC), filmmaker David Tolchinsky is living the mantra of the program he helped create at Northwestern University.  

An Attempt to Heal in the Contemporary World,” Tolchinsky’s second play, is a dark screwball comedy that explores the intersection of genius and madness and challenges what constitutes legitimate illness in our society.

A man named “Dave” becomes convinced that something is wrong with his body, though he cannot quite point to what. Wilhelm Reich, the fallen protégé of famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, viewed in his time and historically as both mad scientist and visionary thinker, might hold the key to Dave’s health -- and everything else in the universe.

Through Dave’s eyes, the play tracks Reich’s life, his discovery of “orgone energy” and promotion of free sex clinics focusing on healthy sex for all. The play also explores the 1950s sci-fi movie, “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” in which a man, unable to find a cure, gets smaller and smaller and becomes more and more estranged from the world.

Once the largest multi-arts festival in North America, FringeNYC will present approximately 200 national and international theater and performance companies from around the world in venues across New York City in October.

“Whether I’m writing a screenplay, directing a play, producing a film or curating a gallery show, I’m always asking ‘What’s the best and most appropriate form my work can take?,’ which is essentially the philosophy of the MFA program I founded,” said Tolchinsky, director of the School of Communication’s MFA in Writing for Screen and Stage Program at the School of Communication, which combines the best of an MFA in screenwriting and an MFA in playwriting.

Indeed, MFA students have gone on to be successes in the worlds of TV, screenwriting and playwriting, and often in more than one realm. One example is Sarah Gubbins, whose plays were being produced widely in Chicago while she was at work on Amazon’s “I Love Dick.” Gubbins will soon see her adaption of the psychological thriller “Shirley” on the big screen.

Tolchinsky has limited experience in theater but has received acclaim for “An Attempt to Heal in the Contemporary World,” as well as his first foray into theater, “Where’s the Rest of Me?” which premiered in 2015 at the Hudson Guild Theatre in Manhattan.

Inspired by the manic anxiety of Tolchinsky’s prominent psychiatrist father Marshall Edelson and monologist Spalding Gray, “Where’s the Rest of Me” weaves together themes of mental illness, monologues and movies.

Tolchinsky seems to have struck a nerve with his theatrical interrogation of what’s real and what’s not in the realm of health.

“Where’s the Rest of Me,” was nominated for best play, with Tolchinsky being voted best director, for its New York production. The play was produced again recently in Chicago at A Red Orchid Theatre as part of their Incubator Series and featured in The Road Theatre’s Summer Playwrights Festival in Hollywood.

“I love how movies can immerse you in a dream-like world, but I love the unpredictability and immediacy of live theater. I’m an ‘expert’ screenwriter/filmmaker but am a kid when it comes to theater. It’s all just new and intriguing,” Tolchinsky said. “I can’t wait to see the story come to life on stage.”

“An Attempt to Heal in the Contemporary World” will be performed on Tuesday, Oct. 16, at 4:15 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 18, at 9:15 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 25, at 9:15 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 27, at 2 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 28, at noon. For tickets, visit