I must confess an immediate fondness for the Flea’s brand-new home at 20 Thomas Street. Its downstairs 44-seater, the cozy “Siggy” (named in honor of founder Sigourney Weaver), brings a rush of warm fuzzies. I quiver thinking about entering the Flea’s two other spaces. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not going to marry the black box, although becoming infatuated with a room, a chair, or a prop — that’s totally OK. So goes the sweetly inclusive message of the Siggy’s inaugural show, Inanimate, a silly play about sexual identity. Nick Robideau’s comedy probes the world of “objectum sexuals,” people who bond romantically with, well, stuff.
The chief objet d’amour for shy and wound-up Erica (Lacy Allen) is a Dairy Queen sign she calls Dee (personified by the bad-boy-ish Philip Feldman). Dee shines his corporate brand atop a weathered steel pole that Erica blissfully nuzzles and wraps her legs around, in thrall to a passion that knows no sanitary bounds. When Erica is fired from a grocery store for getting frisky with a can opener, ex–high school classmate Kevin (Maki Borden) suggests she join him pouring soft-serve at the DQ. How can she resist?
Robideau cheerfully exploits his heroine’s unusual turn-on — and her surreal inner life — for quirky laughs, not overtly cruel ones. When Erica goes into materialist raptures, actors slink onstage to play a pretentious lamp (Artem Kreimer), a plushy toy (Nancy Tatiana Quintana), and the aforementioned can opener (Michael Oloyede, in black-leather s/m regalia). It’s not so much punching down as ribbing affectionately. Waifish and wide-eyed, Allen commits fully to her character’s furtive erotic fixations and panicked confusion. (Improbably, Erica has never Googled “object fetish” to learn about her tastes.) Increasing emotional stress levels, Erica recently lost her mother and officious, over-compensating Trish (Tressa Preston) tries to micromanage her sister’s life. Trish is a selectwoman in their Massachusetts town, promising voters a downtown beautification project — which will predictably involve unsightly, battered Dee.
When Erica’s bedroom fantasies start to stale, the play and director Courtney Ulrich have much-needed comedy backup: the sunny, teddy-bearish Borden as Erica’s Dairy Queen co-worker. As an arrested-development thirty-year-old with a heart of gold, Borden has a plucky-loser vibe that sweetens his scenes. When a tryst between Erica and Kevin at his apartment goes sour, he pivots into bisexual-best-friend mode, helping Erica embrace her unique identity and find an online community.
Erica and Kevin are appealing and the subject is potentially fascinating, so it’s a shame Robideau seems content with sight gags, shallow psychology, and a goofball plot. The sisters’ relationship is lazily sketched, and the violent ending of Erica’s affair with Dee seems rushed. The best writing comes with Erica’s memory of being irresistibly drawn to a stapler on her teacher’s desk, a compelling passage that almost makes you wish Inanimate had been a monologue. Ulrich and the Flea’s young actors, the Bats, keep it broad, bright, and zany, but a couple more drafts could have pushed the script past the Judd Apatow stage of semi-edgy rom-com. Speaking for myself, it’s hard to love a thing that doesn’t seem fully alive.
20 Thomas Street
Through September 24