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Tigers Be Still

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Tigers Be Still
Reed Birney, Halley Feiffer, and Natasha Lyonne.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Had you asked me a couple of weeks ago which New York director I'd want to helm any play about slightly quirky contemporary people struggling to push away the psychological weights silently crushing them, I wouldn't have hesitated in naming Sam Gold. He's made his up-and-coming name doing just that in works by playwrights like Annie Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens) and Stephen Belber (Dusk Rings a Bell), and has proven that, after David Cromer, no currently hot director better understands how to theatricalize the vagaries that consume our everyday lives.

So Kim Rosenstock's new play for Roundabout Underground, Tigers Be Still, would seem to be an ideal match for Gold. Telling the story of two sisters and a mother who either are crippled from depression that left them confined to bed or have only recently recovered from it, an 18-year-old drugstore clerk with anger-management issues, and his father who's never recovered from unwittingly pushing aside the girl of his own dreams in high school, all of whom are threatened by a tiger that's escaped from a nearby zoo, doesn't it cry out for the in-depth explorations of the soul Gold has proven so good at unleashing?

As it turns out, not quite. Rosenstock has provided a thoughtful an tightly written play, but one that’s laden with few subtleties or imagination-provoking details; in other words, she leaves nothing to dramatic chance. At their best, Baker and Belber delivered Gold the opposite: fully composed and constructed character studies that nonetheless require the actors and director to fill in certain crucial blanks that will allow for a perfectly shaped evening. There's nothing wrong with that choice, of course, but it's not one that plays to Gold's considerable strengths as an emotional blacksmith. In trying to flesh out a scenario that's already complete down to the most minuscule colons, he's populated his production with so much unique flavor you may find yourself gorging on saccharine falseness long before the first scene has ended.

That's when the 24-year-old Sherry (Halley Feiffer), narrating via a karaoke machine, introduces us to the most important people in her life: her sister, Grace (Natasha Lyonne), who went catatonic after discovering her boyfriend cheating on her and retaliated by stealing half his stuff (including his prize Chihuahuas); Zack (John Magaro), the troubled high-schooler who's going to assist Sherry in her art history class and submit himself for a little counseling himself; and Zack's dad, Joseph (Reed Birney), the befuddled principal at Zack and Sherry's school, who once had a huge crush on Sherry and Grace's mother but left her after a prom-night catastrophe. Now their lives are all on downward slides, including that of mom, who's put on so much weight as a result of medication that she's locked herself in the bedroom for the last month and has shown no signs of coming out anytime soon.

A light touch is certainly what’s required here, if only to prevent the underlying tragedies from weighing down the show. What isn’t needed, however, are stereotypes that paint these people as nothing more than victims of fate enjoying a drunken night out — that would minimize, rather than emphasize, the pain that has led them all to make so many personally and socially destructive choices. Yet that’s what Gold and his company have settled upon, and in straining so hard for condescending laughs at these people’s expense it has all but elbowed out the potentially heartrending story of love maltreated and misplaced that Rosenstock actually wrote.

Wearing thick glasses and spewing out a whiny voice with rain-like slickness, Feiffer is the one-dimensional nerd personified. From mop of curly hair to lanky awkwardness, Magaro is a stereotypical Troubled Teen. Lyonne's Grace is so slovenly and enervated she seems all but indistinguishable from the couch that's the centerpiece of Sherry's home in Dane Laffrey's set. As for Birney, he's astonishingly flat as Joseph, rendering concern for his son, anger toward Sherry, or fear for that tiger with the identical limp spine and colorless monotone.

There’s no escaping this as a representation of the "real world" in which nothing and no one seems real. Were it not for the plot’s two "fantastical elements," the escape of the tiger and the regression that links Sherry's mom and Joseph across the decades, no one could mistake this for a show deserving this kind of treatment. Even a flashback in which Feiffer and Magaro play their characters’ parents is most noteworthy for the fact that it's hardly noteworthy at all. These are people who have lost the ability to draw attention to themselves, but you’d never know it from the way so many of them are treated here.

Their going overboard too early and too often prevents us from discovering the truth about the people we see onstage — a shame because, in another environment, the attractions and dangers of letting our beastly inner selves get the better of the outward personas that ultimately control our physical world could be captivating. That, however, is a difficult message to communicate via cartoon, and because it's been demanded here we must settle for soft, geek-friendly laughs rather than searing flesh-and-blood recriminations and unvarnished acting. Such things could — and should — make Tigers Be Still land with breath-stealing force instead of a soft, cutesy thud.


Tigers Be Still
Through November 21
Roundabout Theatre Company Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue.
Tickets online and current performance schedule at www.roundabouttheatre.org