The New York Times
October 6, 2010
Escaped Predator? What Else Is New?
A big cat is actually on the prowl in “Tigers Be Still,” an endearing new play by Kim Rosenstock, but nobody’s paying much attention to this alarming problem. A fiercer foe is the grief clawing at the hearts of all the characters, whose afflictions come in many stripes, from debilitating illness to a mother’s death to a father’s abandonment. The possibility of being eaten by a wild animal might be greeted with indifference, if not actually welcomed, by the benumbed, bewildered and bedridden characters in this quirk-addicted but heartfelt comedy.
At the jittery nerve center of the play, which opened Tuesday night at the Roundabout Theater Company’s Black Box Theater under the sensitive direction of Sam Gold, is an anxious but hopeful 24-year-old woman, Sherry (Halley Feiffer), who has only recently emerged from the cocoon of depression that still entombs her mother and sister.
“This is the story of how I stopped being a total disaster and got my life on track,” she announces with a rather too bright smile, “and did not let overwhelming feelings of anxiousness and loneliness and uselessness just, like, totally eat my brain.”
Sherry’s renewal has been inspired by the acquisition of her first-ever job as an art teacher at the middle school run by Joseph (Reed Birney). But the position comes with a caveat: Sherry’s teaching assistant is Joseph’s 18-year-old son, Zack (John Magaro), whose nimbus of frizzy black hair amusingly suggests the storms of anger and despair just, like, totally eating his brain.
Zack’s mother was recently killed in a car accident, and his father has requested that Sherry also employ her training as an art therapist to help him work through his anguish. This would be easier if Sherry had somewhere other than her living room to conduct their sessions. The couch has been permanently colonized as her personal bed of pain by Sherry’s older sister, Grace (Natasha Lyonne), bleary-eyed and heartbroken, having left her cheating cad of a fiancé and thrown herself into the welcoming embrace of Jack Daniel’s.
At least Grace is moderately sociable on the rare occasions when she awakens from her whiskey daze long enough to screen her favorite movie, “Top Gun.” Or to sing along with the karaoke machine she has purloined from her ex’s house, along with most of the rest of his possessions, including his two Chihuahuas.
Grace and Sherry’s mother, by contrast, wins the play’s prize for dysfunction by not even making an appearance. Suffering from auto-immune disorder, this former prom queen has ballooned on medication and retreated to her bedroom upstairs. She now communicates with her daughters in the same house only by telephone.
Even without Joseph’s blunt announcement at a school assembly that a tiger has escaped from the zoo, Ms. Rosenstock’s play is so amply stocked with whimsy-tinted woes that the prevailing tone of naturalism threatens to warp into something more surreal. But her subtly funny dialogue and the vivid, truthful characters keep the play grounded in prickly emotional authenticity.
Mr. Gold’s direction of Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” and “The Aliens” has established him as a specialist in divining myriad layers in apparently flat dialogue and plumbing the depths of awkward pauses. Typical of his knack for teasing out subtext is a brief but piercing scene in “Tigers Be Still” when Joseph tries to cancel his dead wife’s subscription to a yoga magazine. As performed with dexterous felicity by the reliably excellent Mr. Birney, this seemingly mundane half-conversation offers us a devastating glimpse of the submerged desperation beneath Joseph’s veneer of chipper carrying on.
He cannot bring himself to tell the anonymous person on the phone the truth about why he’s canceling. “It’s possible for one woman to realize she doesn’t like yoga,” he says with steely calm. To verbalize the truth even to a stranger would give concrete form to a vacuum in his life he is trying to ignore.
Ms. Feiffer’s perky Sherry shares Joseph’s determination to pretend to a confidence she doesn’t always feel. Chronically without a boyfriend and insecure, Sherry always seems to be on the verge of offering an abject apology for something, for anything. She’s anxious to please and worried she probably won’t. Despite awkwardly flapping arms, nerd-girl glasses and prim ponytail, Ms. Feiffer’s sweetly gawky portrayal never tips into caricature.
The danger of stereotyping also hovers over Zack, the classic monosyllabic teenage boy with a snarky word for everything. But Mr. Magaro inflects the character’s sullen affect with hints of ruminative depths, and his performance retains a quiet integrity even when the plot turns predictably (albeit briefly) into sentimentality when Zack reveals he has a bit of a crush on Sherry.
And Ms. Lyonne, the indie film star of “Slums of Beverly Hills” and “But I’m a Cheerleader,” is a thorough delight in the flat-out funniest role, the grief-crazed Grace, so deeply immersed in self-pity that she has cast aside any attempts at decorum.
“I liked you better when you were unemployed,” Grace growls at Sherry when she urges her to get off the couch. “You were more mellow.”
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