By Martha Wade Steketee
Modern society is packed with machine-crafted and hand-hewn objects intended for display or consumption or decoration. In societies of abundance, we are often told that we focus much too much on accumulation of non-human stuff. But what if those things were, to some humans, more than objects to binge watch or gorge upon or hoard? What if human affection and even sexual attraction was part of the picture?
Nick Robideau’s new play Inanimate, the inaugural offering of The Flea’s new Tribeca theater center, explores the idea of animate and inanimate connections – the Capulet and Montague (or Sharks and Jets) forbidden attraction dynamic at the center of this story. Erica (Lacy Allen), a 30-year-old who has lost her way after the recent death of her mother, lives in the basement of her local politician sister Trish (Tressa Preston), and is attracted to objects – “objectum sexual,” a real thing.
This is a story of a person with an active imagination finding her way to her own people, her own happiness, in a small town where everyone knows you and not everyone thrives in that fishbowl. We watch the enchanting and delightfully physically astute actor Allen as Erica, our object-focused and inspired main character, feel her way through her condition as any young person finds their way into adult relationships.
Erica speaks at the top of the play of her current love unfurling and opening her. It’s easy to assume that this is her first real experience of falling in love and we don’t know if she’s speaking of her own particular version of that love. “I’d see someone laughing or talking really fast in that way people do when they get excited,” she says to us, before we realize that she is directing her comments to a Dairy Queen sign (and in our set design, we see the sign pole rather than the full signage). “It was like being slightly out of sync with the rest of the world, and it was like that for so long,” Erica continues. The playwright poetically captures her relaxing into her emotions with telling details that ring true. “But now, now, my face … unscrunched, and my heart unscrunched with it.” And here the playwright had me, as so much putty in his hands. I unscrunched.
The story and this production shines when it allows Erica’s freak flag to fly, and settles into the distinctly oddball and delicious comic stylings of the various embodied objects and everyone’s passionate oddities.
All the actors are able and game – asked to don multiple objects-as-characters evoked in costume. The graffiti-festooned DQ pole is doubled by actor Philip Feldman as Dee, for example, in a leather jacket with parallel colorization and patches and painting that was a special favorite. The actors speak naturally even when describing their object lives (a can opener, a milk carton, another sign). Maki Borden as Kevin, Erica’s childhood friend who works in the DQ with the object of her affection, reflects especially delicate understanding and astute comedic chops.
The only plot line that feels appended, despite a fine performance by Tressa Preston, is Erica’s older sister Trish who is a more conventional small-town character, invested in local politics, who initially responds to Erica’s revelation of her sexual predilections with intolerance masked as caring.
The spare, functional, comic-book influenced set designed by Yu-Hsuan Chen (any set that manages to include a functioning lava lamp tucked into a bookcase is a winner in my book), is lit to great effect by Becky Heisler McCarthy. Characters are adorned to a splendid grunge fare-thee-well or suggestively evoke the inanimate objects some of them are actually, well, playing, to bring us into the elastic world that Robideau has built. And let us applaud the totally female directing and design team assembled here, making a strike for parity in New York theater making.
Inanimate. Through September 24, 2017 at the Flea Theater (20 Thomas Street). Running time 90 minutes with no intermission.
Photos: Hunter Canning