In Kim Rosenstock’s new play, Tigers Be Still, it’s not just the big cat of the title that’s on the run – at one point a dog gets loose too. But while these animals run wild, their human counterparts are in varied cases of stasis in this introspective work from a very promising emerging playwright. Sherry (Halley Feiffer), a 24-year-old art therapist, is the connective tissue between these cocooned lives. These include her older sister Grace (Natasha Lyonne), who has retreated home after breaking up with her adulterous fiancé and brought half of his belongings – including his pet dogs – with her. Grace now spends her days in a fugue state, nursing Jack Daniel’s and re-watching Top Gun ad nauseum. The two sisters live with their mother, who has put on so much weight that she hides in her bedroom offstage and refuses to emerge, Gilbert Grape-style.
There are also several men attached to Sherry, including Joseph (Reed Birney), the principal of the high school where Sherry teaches but also the erstwhile prom date of Sherry’s mother, and his teen son, Zack (John Magaro), who becomes Sherry’s teaching assistant but is also in need of some therapy himself in the wake of his mother’s death in a car accident.
Rosenstock’s look at frozen lives is sharp but also painless; there is a plot, of sorts, that includes a tiger on the loose, but Tigers is really a character study. In this way the play calls to mind one of last year’s great triumphs, Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, in which characters’ seeming immobility actually had tons to tell and propelled the story along. Both shows have something else in common in the form of director Sam Gold, a genius at exacting nuance and depth from even the slightest situation.
And Gold does just that in Tigers. Grace, for example, could be a really self-indulgent showboating piece, but Lyonne does the work of dealing with the character’s pain beneath the humor to inject her with true pathos. Magaro, too, navigates the fine line between typical surly youth and emotionally crippled survivor with impressive skill: Zack engenders humor and sympathy as his complicated relationship with Sherry develops. Feiffer, too, is generous throughout the play, taking what could have been an annoyingly quirky leading role – Sherry has never had a job or a boyfriend, but comes armed with human insight – and instead weaving herself into the tapestry of an ensemble.
It’s Birney, though – himself a Circle Mirror grad – who runs away with his too few scenes in Tigers as the show’s most believable character. Rosenstock has made Joseph a character full of secrets, some of which he keeps from us (including a high school inside joke that remains between him and Sherry’s mother only) and some of which he keeps from other characters. A solo scene in which Joseph attempts to cancel his late wife’s yoga magazine subscription is a case study in grief and a textbook example of rich performance.
Tigers isn’t yet a perfect play. It would benefit from a little economy; if Rosenstock could cut down on the number of quick two-hander scenes, the play might feel less meandering as this quartet’s emotional journey continues.
And while it is a great compliment for the play to be a part of the Roundabout Underground series, the black box theater there is dreadful. With Gold’s actors often sitting or laying down, much of the action is quite literally impossible to see if one is not in the front row; a Cirque du Soleil member couldn’t do all of the craning and contorting necessary to see everything on that stage. (Still, what one can see of Dane Laffrey’s costumes and sets are worth it.)
Rosenstock’s play is proof-positive that many things in life are possible. Tigers can be tamed. People can get through grief. And it’s possible to write a smart, sensitive play that is pure joy to sit through.