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Theatre in Review: Inanimate (The Flea)

Lacy Allen, Philip Feldman. Photo: Hunter Canning.

The only inanimate thing about Nick Robideau's new play is its premise: The heroine, Erica, has a virulent case of Objectùm Sexuality. This is an apparently real term for people who have an orientation to inanimate love objects. (The things one learns in this job.) A real, honest-to-God website for those with this condition features photos of people in passionate embraces with pieces of wood, walls, a picket fence, and what appears to be a train engine. As you can imagine, it's the public displays of affection that make the most trouble for those with OS. Take Erica: She's at work, checking out groceries, surreptitiously leering at a package of toilet paper and a quart of milk, when she is overcome with passion for a can opener; unable to stop herself, she shoves it up her blouse, massaging her chest with it.

This little dalliance costs Erica her job, but what of it? The can opener was just a flirtation, as are her ongoing things with the floor lamp and the little stuffed toy that she keeps in her bedroom. The real love of her life is named Dee and he is -- wait for it -- an electric Dairy Queen sign, the kind that stands at the top of a tall pole in a parking lot. All of Erica's carrying-on with other objects doesn't count as cheating. "Dee and I were never exclusive," she points out. Well, nobody likes a possessive Dairy Queen sign.

Before we go any further, let me say that Robideau shows clear signs of talent -- but even a playwright with the combined skills of Eugene O'Neill, Kaufman and Hart, August Wilson, and Paula Vogel would be hard-pressed to make this syndrome comprehensible, let alone sympathetic, to an audience. Sometimes Inanimate seems like a genuine, if flippant, attempt to garner sympathy for Erica and her ilk; at other times, it seems like Robideau is only interested in playing OS for laughs. Then again, he appears to use it as a metaphor for his characters, many of whom are struggling to grow up sometime before the onset of middle age. For most of its 85 minutes, however, it appears to be running around in various directions, its sheer energy often signaling desperation.

Inanimate traces the chaos that follows in Erica's wake as she tries to keep the lid on her little secret. Trying to pass for normal, she throws herself at Kevin, her former high-school classmate, now in his thirteenth year of employment at the Dairy Queen. (Dating Kevin gives her a plausible reason to hang out with Dee, you see.) As Erica and Kevin make halting progress toward some kind of romance, the play briefly becomes a touching picture of thirty-year-olds trapped in lives without prospects, inhabiting a commercial-strip landscape of chain restaurants and big-box stores. Alas, their love is doomed: Kevin is quite the collector -- of lava lamps, action figures, and shot glasses, among other things -- all of which captivate Erica so badly that she loses focus during lovemaking. There's more trouble in store when Trish, Erica's older sister, gets wind of all this. Trish, a selectwoman, has devised a downtown redevelopment plan; apprised of Erica's secret love, she decides that it's time to raze that Dairy Queen.

That Inanimate doesn't totally collapse under the inanity of its premise is a tribute, sort of, to Robideau, who treats this bizarre theme with a certain amount of inventiveness, especially when anthropomorphically evoking each of Erica's love objects: For example, that can opener appears in the form of a leather-bar habitué, while the floor lamp is dressed in '70s chic, complete with turtleneck, flared pants, and love beads. (Sarah Lawrence's costumes are endlessly clever.) Courtney Ulrich's direction gives the action more pace and pizzazz than you might think possible, especially in her rapid-fire staging of the community-news television broadcasts in which Trish holds forth on her urban-renewal dream -- and, ultimately, is forced to confront the rumors about Erica.

As always, the performances by the Bats, the Flea's resident company, are a pleasure. As Erica, Lacy Allen is a sad-eyed rag doll, her dark-blond hair trailing off into pink extensions, as if she got her head stuck in a cotton candy machine. Her Erica faces the world in a permanent defensive crouch, nervously eying whomever she's speaking to for signs of criticism. If she can't quite make Erica's obsession understandable, it's hardly her fault, and she gets high marks for bravery in navigating some of the nuttiest dialogue you've heard in some time: Explaining the birth of her obsession to Kevin, Erica describes how, one day in high school, she became fixated on the stapler on the teacher's desk; soon, she was gazing moonily at larger objects -- like the gazebo in the town park. "That's the reason I didn't go off to college, you know," she confides. "I couldn't take the gazebo with me." And when the script calls for Erica and Dee to experience a kind of liebestod that sends the latter crashing to the ground, Allen throws herself into the scene -- literally.

Maki Borden -- scruffy, bewhiskered, and wildly enthusiastic as only a man-child of thirty can be -- lends considerable charm as Kevin, who still adores Dungeons and Dragons and whose dreams don't extend much beyond attending the next Renaissance Faire. (Confessing his love to Erica, his star customer at the Dairy Queen, he says, hurt, "Do six months of daily Blizzards mean nothing to you?") As it happens, Kevin, who is bisexual, has plenty of issues of his own, and he ends up playing sidekick to Erica as her situation becomes increasingly desperate. Philip Feldman, dressed as a kind of hipster incarnation of a Dairy Queen sign, is appropriately seductive as Dee. Tressa Preston does her best with the seriously underwritten role of Trish.

Working on the shallow stage of the Siggy, one of the spaces at the Flea's new home, the set designer Yu-Hsuan Chen artfully scatters around a number of objects and furniture pieces that stand in for the play's varied locations. (In an especially clever touch, one of those Salvation Army donation boxes opens up to reveal Kevin's collection of ephemera.) Becky Heisler McCarthy's lighting reshapes the stage from scene to scene, relying heavily on a color we might call Dairy Queen red. Megan Culley's sound design makes good use of Ingrid Michaelson's "Take Me the Way I Am" and Train's "Drops of Jupiter," along with an intentionally cheesy intro for that television news broadcast and underscoring for certain scenes.

As always at the Flea, there is talent everywhere you look, but, given its setup, Inanimate is dead on arrival. What with the company's mission to support early-career writers, this sort of wild misfire is to be expected now and then. In any case, the new Flea looks to be an inviting home for new writing -- maybe even another effort by Nick Robideau. -- David Barbour

(31 August 2017)

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