Ethan Lipton’s new play, “Red-Handed Otter,” tells the story of Paul (Matthew Maher), a distraught security guard struggling to cope with the recent death of his beloved cat, Jennifer. Paul opens the show by announcing to co-worker Don (Bobby Moreno) that Jennifer has passed away. In order to pull Paul out of his funk, Don enlists the help of three other security guards to throw Paul a party. Although Don’s intentions are good, his gift of a replacement cat is the spark that permanently changes the relationship between the two.
The initial interactions between Moreno and Maher exhibit the best acting in the show. Subtle alterations to facial expressions combined with short bits of dialogue allow for understated comedy. This modest humor provides a buildup to the play’s highlight, when Don tells Paul the tale of his ‘red-handed otter.’ Moreno’s storytelling ability is natural and believable, captivating the audience with the tale of a pet otter that swam away. Unfortunately, this moment, the best in the show, is over within the first 10 minutes.
Unnatural conversation, awkward silences and unrealistic emotional responses fill the remaining 75 minutes. The actors clearly try their best with the material they have been given, but Lipton’s script often features absurd jumps between shallow conversations and emotional revelations.
For example, a conversation between guards Estelle (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and Randy (Gibson Frazier) regarding the improper care of a hermit crab is long, unnecessary and baffling, yet it is supposed to hint at their budding romance. Even if there was an evident connection between a tiny crustacean and blossoming love, the playwright’s desire to develop this romance does not warrant the lackluster story of a man who killed his crab as the result of improper cage maintenance. “Nobody likes a self-righteous rabbit!” yells Paul as one scene reaches its bizarre climax.
The play concludes in the same way it opened, with Moreno and Maher sitting on stage. These final 15 minutes include an inept fight scene, an elongated viewing of pictures on Paul’s cell phone and a surprisingly witty closing line. “Red-Handed Otter” is far from a brilliantly written piece of theater, but it is also not a complete waste. The script has its moments of intelligent comedy. Sadly, the majority of the play is filled with mindless humor and pointless use of expletives.
“Red-Handed Otter” is playing at the Cherry Lane Studio, located at 38 Commerce St., through Oct. 6th. For tickets and more information, see cherrylanetheatre.org.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Sept. 27 print edition. Alyssa Dvorak is a contributing writer. Email her at email@example.com.
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