The Merits of Nick Ribodeau's "Inanimate," Andre Fuad Degas's "House of Charity"

In Nick Robideau’s Inanimate Erica (Lacy Allen) has fallen in love with her local Dairy Queen sign. She hears the sign responding to her and so has named the unmistakably phallic-looking pole—which is all the audience sees of the sign—Dee (Philip Feldman, gotten up in Gummy Bear-colors that costumer Sarah Lawrence designed).

Whenever Erica thinks no one is looking, she embraces the pole and swings around it, giving enhanced meaning to pole dancing. And in the play, opening the intimate Siggy room at the attractive and practical new home for the Flea Theater, Dee isn’t the only lifeless object for which Erica has erotic feelings. She’s also drawn, among other items, to her bedroom lamp, a floppy stuffed animal and a stapler (all played by the very busy Artem Kreimer, Nancy Tatiana Quintana and Michael Oloyede).

What we have here is a young woman sublimating her sexual urges as a result of an inability to develop normal attachments, as she eventually confesses to Kevin (Maki Borden), the 30-year-old bisexual Dairy Queen staffer who has had a crush on her ever since they were high school students 15 years earlier.

Kevin even talks about having found a website dubbed something like Objectum Sexum on which men and women cottoning to objectophilia discuss their inanimate favorites. And believe it or don’t, there is such a Google-able community.

So Robideau has hit on a credible theme but not necessarily one that demands the kind of lengthy attention he gives it. Much after he gets his point across, he still has Erica rubbing up against the objects of her affection—and in their turn, the objects spend time writhing suggestively on or around her.

When Erica attempts unsuccessfully to switch her attachments to him—Kevin sympathizes with her, whereas her sister Trish (Tressa Preston) has no time for Erica’s inclinations. A go-getter trying to run for local office and worried how Erica’s publicized problems might affect the political race, Trish even comes up with a cruel plan to undo the Erica-and-Dee bond.

Apparently it’s about this point that Robideau sees he’s extending a skit beyond its ability to sustain. So he alters the 90-minute play from a probe of a woman’s sexual repression to a call for understanding and acceptance of personality differences. As a matter of current national focus, this second message nicely fits in with current calls for unity rather than divisiveness.

While watching Inanimate overstay its welcome, I had time to think about other questions Robideau raises. For instance, here’s a male playwright composing a play in which the protagonist is a woman. That’s far from unusual, of course, but I started to wonder why in his case he settled on a female with such an offbeat compulsion.

It occurred to me that perhaps he has first-hand experience along those lines. Perhaps there’s a girlfriend—perhaps an unresponsive potential girlfriend—about whom he’s writing. Maybe there’s an ex-girlfriend at whom he’s perhaps getting even. I have no proof of this. So just saying.

Courtney Ulrich mostly directs Inanimate with commitment so that the focal figures acted by Allen, Borden, Feldman and Preston keep it humming. Throughout, Allen remains troubled and driven, while Borden cleverly finds opportunities to be amusing. As the animated inanimate objects, Kreimer, Quintana and Oloyede (who also appear as personalities on a local television show) have roles so tempting to overdo that they don’t exactly resist—nor do they appear to have been asked to by Ulrich.

N. B. The actors are all members of the Bats, the Flea’s resident acting troupe. According to a theater company spokesperson, they are unpaid. It’s possible that ticket buyers, most of whom may be unaware of this, would feel uncomfortable watching competent actors—actors presumed to be professional—under such circumstances. Again, just saying.

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Six men, apparently prisoners, work in a kitchen, sometimes getting along, sometimes not. They’re the prominent characters in The House of Charity, Andre Fuad Degas drama, which he also directs at Theater For a New City as part of the Dreamup Festival.

There’s an old theater saying—and if there isn’t, there should be—that it’s the rare playwright who is well advised to helm his own play. Degas does a fairly good job of it, particularly with the cast, although, as director, his not seeming eager to trim the intermissionless nearly two-hour work he’s penned, as playwright, explains its tendency to ramble.

Cody (Brendan Ryan Walsh), who’s having an affair with house official Gabrielle (Jaleesa Capri), has been tapped by her to co-run the kitchen with Felipe (Ivan Goris) on the day when the institution’s donors have been invited to dine as part of a test of the institution’s effectiveness.

Backus (Peter Halpin), an adept patissier, believes he should be wearing the double-breasted jackets handed to the co-chefs, while Von (Nixon Cesar), also competent, has little interest in taking on that assignment. Also on hand for the more menial duties are gay-as-a-pink-hat Ricky (Andrew Oakes) and solid helper Art (Patrick Faerber).

The dramatic question here is whether the men can bring off the crucial repast in the face of limited supplies and, more pressing than that, their increasing animosities. One hurdle needing surmounting is the discovery in the pantry of a bottle of bourbon that could be a strong temptation for Cody, who’s several months sober and declares more than once that he’ll never drink again.

Degas arranges The House of Charity as a series of scenes during which two, three or four of the men butt heads, sometimes just about literally. It’s the unceasing confrontations that over time become repetitive, predictable—though evidently not to Degas. (Gabrielle appears very early in the proceedings and then again very late.)

Another repeated occurrence at tense moments is a voiceover insisting “Breathe.” This occurs when the men seem about to lose it thoroughly. Each time the unseen woman’s says “breathe,” those wrangling do as told, and the lights fade.

The implication is that Degas’s true House of Charity intention is to send the message that all conflicts would be settled if those tangling settled on a form of counting to 10. Not bad advice, of course, and perhaps worth passing on to Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.

As so often transpires in productions, a worthy cast compensates to a noticeable degree for scripts that would benefit from further editing. (See Inanimate above.) As director Degas conducts the actors, they’re a worthy ensemble and ought to be thanked by audience and playwright Degas alike.

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