Four hard-working actors, ably assisted by a resourceful costumer and a nimble props master, make a mighty effort to play the 20-plus characters in “New York Animals.” Steven Sater’s ambitious but disjointed play scores style points for being staged (by director Eric Tucker) in a basement cabaret, a cool setting for Burt Bacharach songs that sound like no Bacharach songs you’ve ever heard. The sardonic lyrics by Sater (“Spring Awakening”) suit the caustic tone of the music, but his sketchy vignettes do not a play make.
The sophisticated vibe of the score is amplified by the lead vocalist, Jo Lampert, who has the torchy voice of a blase cafe singer and the doleful visage of a Modigliani painting. Under the savvy musical direction of Debra Barsha, the tight onstage band also gets the urbane message.
But the disorganized scenes of New Yorkers behaving badly over the course of a single rainy day in the city (in 1995, for no discernible reason) are short on the wit and style that make the songs so interesting. What you see is what you get with the two-dimensional characters: A dodgy rag-trade entrepreneur stiffs his printer. An over-advantaged Upper West Sider patronizes the deliveryman. A spiteful blind man berates a blameless stranger. A stressed-out wife lets her housekeeper bully her. A preoccupied cab driver hits a pedestrian.
The dramaturgical intention is to connect all the individual lives represented in these vignettes into some grand design. But the characters are commonplace and their connections are arbitrary — so-and-so is the father of somebody who catches the same taxicab as somebody else’s daughter — rather than dramatic.
All the subtlety is in the songs. “New York, Do Not Waste My Time” can be taken as a declaration of social fatigue or a longing to dream again. “Window-Shoppin’ and Dreamin’ Dreams” is a kind of anthem for the proud and the lonely. “Something That Was Beautiful” is a song of unbearable regret. “This Is How the Heart Knows” is pure, unadulterated pain. And “New York, I Love You” is thick with irony.
These are the songs of New Yorkers, all right, but not of the losers in this show.