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Playwright Kenny Finkle's tale of a feline who must decide between living indoors with her owner or outdoors with an amorous alley cat rates an approving meow for imagination, but only half-hearted purrs for execution.

Samantha - Tessa Thompson Shuman - Jeff Marlow Matilda - Shana Wride Oscar - Louis Lotorto

Playwright Kenny Finkle’s tale of a feline who must decide between living indoors with her owner or outdoors with an amorous alley cat rates an approving meow for imagination, but only half-hearted purrs for execution. Old movie references, satirical psychobabble and moments of broad farce are the layers of cream that intermittently add flavor to an overlong and shapeless comedy.

Heroine Samantha (Tessa Thompson) initially announces, “These are my memoirs,” and searches for a loving owner in an animal shelter she defines as ” ‘Amistad’ meets ‘Schindler’s List.’ ” After some rejections, she encounters nerdy Web designer Shuman (Jeff Marlow), and their mutual affection mounts until Samantha discovers his bad breath, uncontrollable gas and indifference to her emotional requirements.

These scenes don’t race along rapidly enough; Samantha’s narration is too verbose and overly explicit, spelling out every detail rather than letting actions and characterizations unfold freely.

When Shuman takes Samantha to the vet, they get to know aspiring cat therapist Matilda (Shana Wride). Wride is a prodigiously talented, no-holds-barred comedian, and she tackles her role with tooth-and-claw frenzy, sometimes operating like the center of a one-woman show. She alone comprehends Samantha’s language, and eventually attempts to reconcile cat and owner when Samantha fights to leave home and live on the streets with adventurous alley cat Oscar (Louis Lotorto).

Lotorto recently brought magic to the Colony’s “Sherlock’s Last Case,” and he does the same here. Oscar is written by Finkle with wit and perceptiveness, and director Stefan Novinski captures his genial, swaggering confidence. When Oscar tells Samantha, “I love every little hair and paw — you’ve got me pussy whipped,” his charisma is an enchanting alternative to Shuman’s whiny, one-dimensional weepiness. Lotorto’s Oscar consistently lifts “Indoor/Outdoor” to a higher realm of charm and excitement.

Part of Lotorto’s appeal is his credibility as a cat. Melanie Watnick’s costumes shun literalness by avoiding creature-defining clothes, yet Lotorto externalizes the cat psyche, its rejecting of roots in favor of roaming the world.

Thompson’s Samantha, by contrast, seems too human throughout. Thompson shows her thesping skill in angry confrontations with Shuman and in the thrill of being on her own when she takes off with Oscar. But her moves, gestures and vocal inflections have a generic nonspecificity; they don’t suggest a cat or have any genuine, physicalized animal subtext.

Also problematic is the story’s crucial contest. Samantha battles so brutally to embrace Oscar and escape Shuman that her return home lacks conviction, particularly after Samantha has screamed earlier at him, “You have no backbone. … You live in fear.” (We also wonder why, after her atrocious behavior, Shuman would want her back.)

Although Jeff Marlow (terrific in the Colony’s “Around the World in 80 Days”) brings liveliness and vulnerability to his role, the part demands additional strength and variation if Shuman is to present any kind of effective rival for his feline competitor. Because of this, it’s hard to care whom Samantha eventually chooses.

It takes too long for the Oscar-vs.-Shuman thread to get going, and the show’s conclusion languishes through lengthy digressions that grow maudlin and strain to tie up loose ends. It begins to seem as though Samantha has more than nine lives, when a few less would be enough.

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Colony Theater; 276 seats; $40 top

Production: A Colony Theater Company presentation of a play in two acts by Kenny Finkle. Directed by Stefan Novinski.

Crew: Sets, Susan Gratch; costumes, Melanie Watnick; lighting, Lisa D. Katz; sound, Drew Dalzell; production stage manager, Armina LaManna. Opened, reviewed Aug. 20, 2005. Runs through Sept. 18. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.

Cast: Samantha - Tessa Thompson Shuman - Jeff Marlow Matilda - Shana Wride Oscar - Louis Lotorto

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