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Worse Than Tigers

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - August 27, 2018

Shannon Marie Sullivan and Braeson Herold
Photo Courtesy of The Mill

It's just a guess, but I'll hazard that Mark Chrisler has a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? fixation. Certainly Chrisler's Worse Than Tigers, at the New Ohio Theatre, borrows many Albeean aspects, and folds in an absurdist element that is meant to elevate the action and doesn't. Once again, we're focused on an unhappy couple, Humphry (Braeson Herold) and Olivia (Shannon Marie Sullivan), in their living room, which in set designer Matt Carlin's rendering is very gray, and so are their lives. He's the meeker of the two, she's the more strident, and at curtain's rise they're not arguing about "some goddam Warner Brothers epic" as George and Martha did; instead, each is on his/her cellphone, two inches apart but not relating. As in the Albee, they're in denial about something, something which isn't revealed till the end, though the lady next to me had it figured out by intermission. There's an elephant in the room, no, make that a tiger outside it.

Yes, in this unspecified suburban haven, a tiger is roaming the streets, and AJ Surasky's sound design makes it terrifying enough. Kurt, (Zach Wegner), a hunky cop, has to fight it to get through the couple's front door, and soon Olivia will be flirting with him as brazenly as Martha flirted with Nick. He'll exit the next morning and get eaten alive, as will an unseen neighbor of theirs whose husband has just died. And all along the way Humphry, whom Kurt calls by the wrong name for no good reason, will try to placate the other two, accommodating this unwelcome intrusion into their home, stepping aside to let Kurt sleep with his wife and seeking to lighten the atmosphere with jokes so terrible they're not even really jokes. "What's worse than tigers?" he sets up, only to come up with "Two tigers," then "Nothing, nothing's worse than tigers."

Is the tiger for real? Is the cop? We won't know for a while, and what's worse, we won't care. Chrisler's dialog is flat and repetitive, and director Jaclyn Biskup hasn't figured out how to get these two off the couch enough. Humphry and Olivia are each afforded a big speech near the end which manages to humanize them somewhat, but up to then we're less than riveted by their company. It might help for Chrisler to provide a few life details — how long have they been married, what attracted them to each other, does either of them have a job, for God's sake — but we're left in the dark. Herold, playing a not-very-interesting man, does it well enough, which is to say he's not very interesting, while Sullivan's Olivia seems to have two settings, sullen and withering. Wegner's Kurt is more engaging, but he's gobbled up by the Act One curtain.

It's a marriage on autopilot, you see, and that's just not much of a narrative in itself, unless it goes somewhere. We wonder what they're hiding, and when we find out, it's logical but not especially surprising or affecting, despite the heavy weight of it. There's talk of "before" and "after — "there were happy times, weren't there?" Humphry half-pleads to Olivia — and as the reality sets in, we're kind of, ho hum. "Don't bother trying to keep me, I've been gone for years," she hisses at him in mid-argument. And, in a rare moment of dramatic clarity and lucidity, Humphry asks, "Has everyone gone absolutely insane?"

The eventual revelation of What Happened is enormous and tragic, but we don't feel it in our bones, because it's been preceded by so much halting silence and aimless chatter and failed humor. Chrisler calls Worse Than Tigers "a comedy (until it's not) in two acts." For me, the "until it's not" came pretty quickly.

Worse Than Tigers
Through September 8
New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street between Greenwich and Washington Streets
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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