nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
September 18, 2012
Red-Handed Otter, a deceptively simple character piece by Ethan Lipton, features five human characters--and their memories of a menagerie of lost and beloved pets: the titular red-handed otter (Dan), a guinea pig, Oscar the hermit crab (the “perfect combination of a wet and a dry pet”), a variety of stubborn and idiosyncratic dogs, a cinnamon-colored rabbit prosaically named Cinnamon, and, most centrally, the recently deceased “Hall of Fame cat” Jennifer, who was the most important person in her owner, Paul’s, life. Paul’s relationship with Jennifer was complex and conflicted, but his grief is real. For most of these people, in fact, their relationships with their pets, past and present, allow a kind of emotional openness they’re not easily able to access in their day-to-day lives.
Paul, like his co-workers Donald, Randy, Estelle, and Angela, is a security guard at an office complex. It’s a job of almost excruciating dullness; they spend most of their days staring into a wall of computer monitors on which absolutely nothing happens. (The physical details of this stultifying environment are reproduced with striking fidelity in every particular: the set--by Andrew Boyce--is rich with detail, from dirty paint to its twenty-seven semifunctional monitor screens to the outdated computers that power the system; the guard uniforms are perfectly, drably neutral; flattening fluorescents creep in to the lighting design. Even the images on the security monitors seem to have been designed for boring neutrality.)
Like any group of co-workers, these five have differing degrees of affection, tolerance, or even outright dislike for each other. Some of them have been romantically involved (Paul and Angela in the past; Don and Angela now), or will be; some of them harbor secret, complicated feelings for each other; some might be friends in other circumstances; some could happily leave this job, walk away, and never speak to each other again. But the combination of proximity and boredom creates a strange intimacy, and so as the play unfolds, we get to know them oddly well.
Events happen around and to the characters, of course, but almost entirely offstage--relationships form and end, pets die, someone vandalizes the lobby of their office complex, people leave the job and go back to school. Yet the cyclical, repetitive nature of the work and the never-changing environment make time feel somehow immaterial, and change elusive.
Lipton has a real strength for dialogue that feels lived-in, for scenes that take us into the middle of a conversation in a way that conveys the history of a relationship. In the snippets we see of these people’s lives (mostly in the security room but occasionally elsewhere), we’re seeing the aftermath and the lead-in to those big events; we’re looking at them from a sharply observed sidelong perspective.
The play doesn’t have a lot of narrative thrust, but it never feels slow or flat or flabby, either; it’s carefully and subtly constructed. Director Mike Donahue and a cast of indie theater regulars (two of whom I’ve seen in Lipton’s work before) are all well-attuned to the piece’s rhythms and structures.
Bobby Moreno (Don) is an incredibly likable actor, who makes Don endearing even though he’s not the most emotionally savvy guy, and can even be frustrating in his obtuseness. Matthew Maher embraces Paul’s defiant weirdness; when Paul says he wants to be sad and broken, you believe him, and even sort of cheer that attitude on. As the “elder statesman” of the security room, Gibson Frazier’s Randy likes to come off as the straight arrow, but doesn’t hide his own anxieties and loneliness. Estelle seems the most grounded, and Quincy Tyler Bernstine brings an appealing combination of self-consciousness and self-possession. And Rebecca Henderson, as Angela, has a stronger sense of self, at the core, than the rest.
Not surprisingly, then, it’s Angela who manages to break away, to get on with her life. And while in some ways the play ends as it began, only eight or so months later--with Paul and Don in the security room, talking about cats--in other ways, the axis of these characters’ lives has shifted, in ways small and profound.