In Red-Handed Otter, a quirky but chilly new comedy by Ethan Lipton at the Cherry Lane Theatre, lessons of love and death tend to come wrapped in fur. Odd bits of business revolve around topics that range from the sub-personalities of cats to the science of animal massage.
There are funny moments, particularly due to some sharp performances by director Mike Donahue's cast of downtown theater vets, who play five night watchmen (and women) at a large, lifeless office building somewhere.
But this is comedy in the post-Seinfeld age of Louis CK, with entire scenes revolving around subjects that sound like bits of a stand-up monologue. But unlike Louie or Seinfeld, there's not a lot of humanity bristling silently underneath the surface. In Lipton's slightly bleak world, what you see and hear is what you get. That may be the point, but it makes the play's hour and a half running time seem longer than necessary.
The actors serve the piece better than it serves them. Matthew Maher and Bobby Moreno are a particularly winning pair as Paul and Donald, rivals for the affections of a colleague named Angela, solidly played by Rebecca Henderson.
Maher is a human cartoon whose blazing blue eyes shift severely whenever the morose Paul senses that something stupid has just been uttered, which is most of the time. When he shuts his eyes tight, you'd swear that the graphic artist of one of the comic books Paul keeps at his workstation has just scrawled a few lines across a drawing of a bald head. Maher's best moment, and one of Lipton's better-written speeches, is an amusing reaction to a well-intentioned gift that Don has secretly placed in Paul's knapsack, a monologue that peaks with the line, "What do you have against my despair?"
Moreno, who often plays similarly dangerous characters onstage, here is all puppy dog eyes and warmheartedness. His portrayal of Donald is thoroughly endearing.
The two other guards in this sad quintet, played by Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Gibson Frazier, also seem to have extra-curricular things going on between them. But these two terrific actors are underused in underwritten parts.
Andrew Boyce's effective set design features three rows of nine surveillance video screens in a security outpost of the office building. During an early press preview, a technical glitch limited the actors to only six of those screens. But it hardly mattered. The point was that the monitors might as well have been directed at the surface of Mars for all the life they revealed.
The austere and somewhat surreal environment is reminiscent of the minimalist playwright/director Richard Maxwell, who also focuses on lonely souls in urban landscapes. But Maxwell's tales are packed with drama played with a hyper-real flatness that forces his audiences to fill in the blanks. In Red-Handed Otter, it's the story itself that is flat.