Lacy Allen and Philip Feldman in Nick Robideau’s “Inanimate,” directed by Courtney Ulrich, at the Flea through September 24. | HUNTER CANNING
If the Flea Theater’s artistic mission is to create “a joyful hell in a small space,” then with their latest production, consider it mission accomplished.
“Inanimate,” by Nick Robideau, tackles a taboo topic you may never knew existed: objectum sexuality, where a person forms an intensely romantic attachment to an object such as a chair, car, kitchen implement, or building. Perhaps you remember Erika LaBrie, who grabbed headlines when she “married” the Eiffel Tower in 2007. She’s been viewed as a punch line ever since.
Not that the play, though infused with comic touches, treats objectum sexuality as a joke. Erica, the shy, conflicted protagonist, has developed a crush on the towering red sign at the local Dairy Queen. She’s attracted to Dee’s warm glow that mirrors her heart, and is entranced by “the way the sky and the air and the whole world is different under the light.”
The parallels drawn between objectophiles and LGBTQ folks are unmistakable, and they’re as fascinating as they are unsettling.
She’s got the hots for Dee — never mind that Dee is a Dairy Queen sign
Like countless gay coming out stories, Erica recalls when she first realized she was attracted to objects — it was a stapler belonging to a ninth-grade teacher — the subsequent waves of shame and remorse, and how she was forced to hide it from the world.
It’s not until a woeful, aborted date with a jovial Dairy Queen manager, Kevin, that she finds the courage to come out. After an initial freak-out moment, Kevin becomes avidly accepting of her orientation, which makes sense given that he is openly bisexual, a term he despises.
“That word is so 1998,” he sniffs. “I’m not exactly into labels. They’re limiting.”
Unfortunately her uptight sister, Trish (Tressa Preston), a community planner in their small town in Massachusetts, is horrified and does everything she can to thwart Erica’s desires.
The Dairy Queen sign isn’t the only item that gets Erica’s juices flowing. Not big on monogamy, she also has bonds with a lamp, a stuffed teddy bear, a can opener cleverly named Oxo, and many more. To articulate how lifelike they appear to her, actors in artful costumes by Sarah Lawrence portray the objects (yep, they talk!), accompanied by thrilling sound effects. This conceit injects much-needed doses of whimsy and theatricality.
Lacy Allen and Maki Borden. | HUNTER CANNING
To be sure, this ambitious enterprise would fall flat if it weren’t for the skilled, go-for-broke performances from the entire cast, under the firm direction of Courtney Ulrich. The play features the Bats, the resident acting company at the Flea.
Lacy Allen is thoroughly convincing as the glum, beleaguered soul coming to grips with being different, and who earns our empathy. Maki Borden practically steals the show as Kevin, a goofy Dungeons & Dragons geek who feels a profound kinship with Erica. They are both 30 years old, teetering on the margins of mainstream society, stuck in menial jobs, afraid to risk grabbing what they really want.
The supporting cast includes Philip Feldman as Dee (with his enormous pole, Dee exudes an alluring, masculine energy), Artem Kreimer, Nancy Tatiana Quintana, and Michael Oloyede.
This world premiere staging of “Inanimate,” the inaugural production at the Flea’s shiny new complex in Tribeca, cements its stature as New York’s leading Off-Off Broadway theater company.
Not only does this thoughtful, quirky drama examine following your own path even if it diverges sharply from everyone else, but it also has the distinction of being among the first plays to address objectum sexuality head-on. Yet it raises some supremely sticky questions.
Should objectophilia be considered a mental illness like homosexuality was decades ago? Are these people perverts or is it a legitimate sexual orientation? If there’s an objecto pride parade in your area, will you watch it and cheer?
INANIMATE | The Flea Theater, 20 Thomas St., btwn. Broadway & Church St. | Through Sep. 24: Mon., Thu.-Sat. at 7 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $15-$35; theflea.org or 212-352-3101 | Eighty-five mins., with no intermission