In his new play INANIMATE, Nick Robideau tells us about an atypical sexual fetish that may surprise some, amuse others or shock everyone else.
And yet Robideau doesn’t take the trouble to explain how or why people acquire this condition.
Erica is in love with a pole. You’re assuming that “pole” should be capitalized, for it must refer to a person from Poland.
No: pole with a lower-case “p” is genuinely the object of Erica’s affection. It has a Dairy Queen sign atop it, not that we see it in Yu-Hsuan Chen’s ever-so-spare set.
What we do witness is Erica’s doing the quintessential pole dance and speaking very rapidly, as people do when they’re white-hot with sexual excitement.
A lamp, a glass, a can-opener: these are a few of her favorite things to whom she constantly speaks. She defends her strange behavior by saying “They talk to me first.”
Here they actually do – for Robideau makes the objects of Erica’s affection come to life by having actors “portray” them. When Erica begins communicating with a bottle filled with white milk that’s topped with a red bottlecap, out comes a performer dressed in white and wearing a little red hat to communicate with her.
As odd as all this may seem, Erica actually has the very real condition known as “objectum sexualis.” The most famous shall-we-say victim of this condition is another Erika, although she spells her name with a “K” instead of a “C.” She’s Erika Eiffel who was born Erika LaBrie and retained that name until she married the Eiffel Tower.
Employers question our Erica’s sanity; one after another lets her go. Letting her go emotionally is harder for Kevin, a Dairy Queen worker who’s “practically a manager” and has hired her. Because he’s attracted to her, he doesn’t want to have his doubts about her. However, how can he not?
More judgmental of Erica’s mental state is her sister Trisha. She’s a minor politician, as is proved by her constant appearances on public access TV. (And when was the last time a playwright even thought about including that medium in a script?)
Although Trisha’s intent on being a major politician, she takes serious time out to help her sister. Frustration occurs because Erica is pretty happy with her love life.
It’s an excellent premise for a play. But, Mr. Robideau, why do those who practice objectum sexualis have a thing for a thing?
Remember Peter Shaffer’s EQUUS? Alan Strang blinded six horses. Shaffer knew that just telling us that story – based on a true one, in fact — wasn’t enough; he had to provide or at least invent a plausible reason why Alan did what he did.
Shaffer came up with a terrific one. When Alan was young, his fervently religious mother once put a picture of Jesus by his bed and told him it was God. Eventually his atheist father replaced it with a picture of a horse. So Alan equated horses with God.
Years later, when a young miss took Alan into a stable in order to have sex, the “gods” in the stall made him so self-conscious that he couldn’t become erect. So out of frustration, he took out their eyes.
Robideau is instead content to have us say “Isn’t this bizarre?” for 85 intermissionless minutes. He owes his public a second act that posits at least a theory.
After EQUUS conquered London, it went to Broadway and won Shaffer his first Best Play Tony. Such happy fates are not in store for INANIMATE. The only first it will be able to trumpet is that it’s the first attraction at the Flea Theater’s small, wide and handsome new basement space at 20 Thomas Street.
Give Robideau credit, though, for getting one important aspect right. He never goes for laughs when detailing Erica’s condition. It’s as if he’s saying “Listen, you have your kinks, I have mine, so let’s not criticize anyone else’s.”
And let’s not criticize director Courtney Ulrich, who stages INANIMATE with integrity. Maki Borden is intensely amusing and yet real as Kevin while Tressa Preston charms as Trisha (although she plays a politician).
Last and definitely best is Lacy Allen as Erica. This is not an easy part to play; do it even slightly wrong, and Erica becomes a laughingstock for having such a fetish. Those who have never heard of objectum sexualis will see from Allen’s intensity and commitment that it isn’t a fiction invented by the playwright but a condition that indeed exists.
Lacy Allen makes us care. If only Nick Robideau could make us understand.