Ethan Lipton’s Red-Handed Otter at the Cherry Lane opens with a dead cat. In the hands of most New York playwrights, this would suggest a drama focused on the sinister, the violent, the repugnant, the feral. Lipton doesn’t work that way. His other plays—No Place to Go, Goodbye April Hello May, Luther—take on grave themes, such as financial collapse, social collapse, and war and its aftermath. Yet Lipton’s humor is as gentle as it is penetrating, promising small consolations for the pain, loss, and indignities of life.
In a cast stuffed with invaluable Off-Broadway performers (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Gibson Frazier, Rebecca Henderson, Bobby Moreno), Matthew Maher stars as Paul, a security guard mourning the loss of his 17-year-old feline. His colleagues attempt to cheer him with tales of other animals loved and lost: a dog, a rabbit, a hermit crab, the titular otter. Bernstine’s Estelle confesses that she’s never had a pet, which prompts Frazier’s Randy into horrified exclamation, “What kind of a person would go their whole lives without loving an animal?” “We weren’t a family who had animals!”—Estelle shouts back—”People! We had people!” She does, however, share a story of a needy smoke detector.
The play is short, not quite an hour and a half, with all the scenes, staged by Mike Donahue, set in a tiny, teched-out office, save for one on a park bench. Beyond the particular subject of companion animals, the piece explores how we do or don’t get on with our lives and the comforts we choose (love, cats, Donna Summer albums) to make those lives easier. That said, Red-Handed Otter can feel less like a play and more of a loose schema of scenes and relationships shambling toward a tidy ending. Though not entirely vital or necessary, it is consistently pleasurable and should be attended. After all, you wouldn’t want to incur Randy-like wrath: “What kind of a person would go their whole lives without seeing an Ethan Lipton show?” Let it not be you.