Felines haven't been too popular in the theatre since a certain Andrew Lloyd Webber musical made them dance frenetically and sing the words of T.S. Eliot for some 18 years. With the opening of his new play Indoor/Outdoor at the DR2 Theatre, Kenny Finkle might change all that.
Finkle's target audience might be cat people who aren't Cats people, but this comedy could even charm the tails off of dog lovers. That's because it's not about animals, but those even more finicky humans. How they communicate, how they fight, and most importantly how they love (their pets and each other) are the topics that Finkle lightly but brightly explores in 90 joyful minutes. And all without fake tails or ears in sight.
For this isn't a play about making humans into cats: it's about making cats into humans, which director Daniel Goldstein wants to do in as romantic a way as possible. And in terms of sheer plot, this is a by-the-book romance that traces the off-again-on-again love affair of a cat named Samantha (Emily Cass McDonnell) and the human named Shuman (Brian Hutchison), who rescues her from an animal shelter. Over the course of 17 tumultuous years, they become close, grow apart, find other loves (of their own species), and must eventually decide whether they can or should be part of a lasting family.
No one, however, lets the story's gentle sentiment become precious. Finkle keeps most of the events on the right side of cartoony, and Goldstein elicits unapologetically adult performances from McDonnell and Hutchison that capture their roles' unspoiled innocence without parodying. McDonnell is especially convincing: She makes no attempt to act like a cat, but in letting her natural emotions inform Samantha's behavior - in circumstances as mundane as chasing a mouse or as malicious as using Shuman's laptop as a litter box - she does capture the spirit of one.
There's also some stylized strangeness: Keira Naughton is on hand as a fussbudgety pet psychologist who helps Shuman and Samantha bridge their conversation gap and Mario Campanaro is cast in a campy variety of roles including Samantha's vagabond lover. Finkle and Goldstein let too much fun be made of Campanaro's quick changes, and dwell too long on a scene in which Naughton leads humans and cats to communicate through only gestures.
It's a group therapy parody that doesn't belong in a play this innocent, and feels like Finkle is straining for topicality. (Even worse, topicality from the mid 1980s.) Equally out of place are a dispiritingly coarse reference to Michael Jackson and some Richter Scale-registering instances of profanity that corrupt and disrupt an otherwise nearly perfect family play.
But just try resisting David Korins's wildly witty set, which transforms Samantha's entire world into a Technicolor scratching post. Or Naughton's occasional appearances as Samantha's cigarette-smoking, been-there-done-that-popped-out-12-other-kids mother, a crack combination of low class and maternal wisdom. Or even the simple emotional pull of the Shuman-Samantha pairing, so spare and simple in Finkle's telling, yet so emotionally honest that it can't help but transcend the pet-owner relationship the play is ostensibly built on.
What else can explain the rampant riffling of sniffles through the theater at the end of the performance I attended? Pre-spring allergies? Not likely. Finkle touches on the deep personal need we all have to love and be loved unconditionally, something that pets supply but finds its most perfect expression in other people.
And if the cat here looks like an adult woman, so what? How often do we cry when another's beloved cat dies? But by the time Indoor/Outdoor is over, don't be surprised if you find yourself tearing up just as much as if Samantha were your own.