With sexual orientation and gender identity so much in the zeitgeist recently, it’s a bit surprising we’ve not heard much about objectum sexuality, the inclination to form deep, sometimes sexual attachments to inanimate objects. Maybe that’s because it seems to be pretty rare: I read up on it back in 2010, when we were publishing an interview on the subject at Book of Odds, and even for that odds-focussed website I don’t think we had any statistics with which to calculate one’s odds of being objectum-sexual.
I never imagined I’d see a play on the subject, let only such a fine one as Nick Robideau’s Inanimate, now in its world premiere production at The Flea Theater directed by Courtney Ulrich. Drawing on the stories real people have shared in an online community and elsewhere, Robideau creates an antihero, Erica (Lacy Allen), who loves a Dairy Queen sign, personified by a small rainbow of a performance by Philip Feldman. With the support of a sympathetic friend she becomes a kind of hero as a downtown revitalization project spearheaded by her politician sister threatens her electric-icon paramour.
What’s remarkable about the show is that it treats what strikes most people as bizarre with humor and respect, so that Erica flowers before us as a fully fleshed-out and believable human being. We see how, far from being a weird fetish, her attachment to “Dee” is the present focal point of her being. But objects of all kinds and with all sorts of personalities speak to her all the time, as we learn in the opening scene, when she’s fired from her supermarket job for getting too close to a can opener. We come to understand it fully when she encounters the dizzying array of objects in her friend Kevin’s (Maki Borden) curio cabinet.
In one of the production’s feats of crafty staging, a dingy clothing-dropoff bin behind the Dairy Queen opens out into that cabinet. It’s a neat metaphor for the characters’ own “big reveals.” One of the playwright’s inspired ideas was to position Erica opposite an equally complex character. Kevin, unlucky in love and stuck in a dead-end job as he turns 30, has nursed a crush on “weird” Erica since their school years. But his own, fluid sexuality is as idiosyncratic as her affections, and Borden makes us root for him as much as we do for Erica. Each has a wonderful “coming out” speech to the other.
These two fine performances center an all-around good cast, directed with prismatic energy through scenes enlivened by precision sound and lighting that rock confidently between subtle and garish.
Gimmicky cable-access TV show sequences set up the political backstory but detract from the tone. These attempts at broad parodic comedy come off as trying too hard amid a narrative whose believability is otherwise enhanced by tasteful and artistic elevation of imagery and action. Erica’s activist sister Trish (Tressa Preston) herself, though, who has taken on a maternal role since the recent death of their mother, convincingly conveys what is probably a typical reaction to learning of a family member’s objectum sexuality. Her hard-edged naturalism clashes hotly with the language, music, and lighting of Dee’s psychedelic poetics, while most everything in between shines with authentic humanity.
Inanimate runs through Oct. 1. For tickets visit The Flea’s website or call 212-352-3101.