Theatergoers who blenched at the subject matter of Edward Albee’s 2002 play The Goat; or, Who Is Silvia? will have a slightly easier time if they attend Inanimate, Nick Robideau’s play that opens the Flea’s new home on Thomas Street in Tribeca—but not by much. Robideau's subject matter parallels that of Albee, who wrote about a man in love with a goat. While Albee’s play is grounded in naturalism—the outlandishness of the premise contrasts with the upheaval of an otherwise normal family life—Robideau takes a different and less successful tack, embracing absurdism for a sexual disorder that is already at the fringes of credibility.
Although the millennial generation has a more notable sexual fluidity than past ones, Robideau’s heroine, Erica (Lacy Allen), is still an outlier. She has a fetishistic sexual attraction to objects, aka objectophilia, that gets her into trouble. After a customer sees Erica put a can opener down her blouse during her shift at a grocery store and complains to the manager, she is fired. Luckily for her, an old school friend, Kevin (Maki Borden), operates a Dairy Queen franchise and, clearly attracted to her, gives her a job, unaware that the primary object of her affection—pun intended—is a Dairy Queen sign, known as Dee (Philip Feldman, who wears a brightly splashed jacket by costume designer Sarah Lawrence and whose ear piercings include a safety pin).
Although Kevin has equal preference for girls and boys—he’s been dating a glass blower named Tommy—Erica’s yens make him look puritanical. She fears anyone knowing that she speaks to the can opener, nicknamed Oxo, as well as to a lamp and a stuffed tiger. Unlike Albee, Robideau goes for absurdism here, as each object has a spirit that talks back. Artem Kreimer is the sinuously sexy lamp; Michael Oloyede, strutting in leather and netting, is Oxo; and Nancy Tatiana Quintana plays the buoyant tiger. They undercut any seriousness one may be expected to attribute to Erica’s dilemma, although they all have amusing moments.
Complicating Erica’s life is her sister, a councilwoman backing a proposition to raze old buildings and restore the downtown area. Tressa Preston brings a welcome sense of normalcy to the play, although she proves ultimately to be the heavy.
The actors are all part of the Bats, the Flea’s non-Equity company, and the energy and eagerness of youth are both strengths and weaknesses. Borden pushes much too hard in his delivery, overselling his character (as he does the pre-show warnings about cell phones and cameras), but he’s not untalented. He and Allen have a quiet scene that clarifies that both actors are simply not yet fully in control of their gifts, and they aren’t helped by the tonal shifts and absurdism in the script nor, perhaps, by their lack of life experience.
That applies to Robideau as well; it’s a flaw in the script and in Courtney Ulrich’s direction that after Kevin gives Erica a job she has begged for, she leaves without even asking when Kevin wants her to start work. Yet Robideau can make the dialogue comical and erotic. “Feel the way I move/So smoothly/Open, closed,” says Oxo to Erica, and she responds, “Well, as long as we’re clear/You are…beautiful/Open, closed.”
The actors’ likability makes up for some of the flaws, which include interludes of a stale, satirical look at a radio news show. “The people want answers,” declares the host (Kreimer), as he questions Trish on her plans for downtown. Yet somehow Trish is the guest interviewee the next day as well—where does that happen in the real world? Absurdism requires some kind of realistic underpinning as a jumping-off point, but here absurdism and purported realism lie cheek by jowl with each other, and they are at odds. They pull one’s attention out of the story.
Perhaps most problematic is that the theme of the play feels shopworn. “I’m not exactly into labels—they’re limiting,” says Kevin. Inanimate may have a message that feels important to its creators, but as a plea for the tolerance of individual sexual orientation, it is awfully late to the party.
The Flea’s inaugural production of Inanimate runs through Oct. 16 at the Siggy Theater in the Flea’s new home at 20 Thomas St., between Church and Broadway. Performances are at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and Monday, with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. (No performance Sept 28.) Tickets start at $15, with the lowest-priced tickets available on a first-come, first-served basis. To purchase tickets, call (212) 352-3101 or visit theflea.org.