When a play starts with a school principal announcing that a tiger has escaped from a local zoo and is loose in the neighborhood, and proposing a handful of fairly mild responses (a buddy system, no recess) while also stating that he himself carries a rifle, you quickly conjure up a few expectations. You expect that Tigers Be Still will be surreal and fantastical, theater of the absurd-ish or metaphorical. (My first association was with Rajiv Joseph’s multi-layered Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.) Or, alternately, that you’re in for a savagely funny black comedy during the course of which someone is bound to be eaten and someone or some creature will be shot. Instead, the tiger pretty much disappears after that early announcement, and when he does re-enter the plot, it’s profoundly anti-climactic.
Rather than a wild animal, the focus of this play by Kim Rosenstock, who’s written for Fox’s New Girl, is a group of messed-up people coping with loss and depression, and one determinedly perky young woman who, herself newly emerged from the dark shroud of misery and dysfunction, is trying her best to make things right for the others. Sherry is an art therapist, and she’s been hired to teach a class by the principal. It’s her first job, and she’s determined to make a go of it, but there’s a catch. The principal’s son, guilty and grieving because his mother died in a car accident that he caused, is to be Sherry’s assistant, and she’s also expected to provide therapy for him. This is hard, because Sherry’s sole office is her apartment, and her older sister, Grace, has permanently ensconced herself on the couch watching Top Gun, complaining and sipping Jack Daniel’s, immobilized with rage and self-pity because her boyfriend cheated on her. She’s also filling up the place with things pilfered from said boyfriend’s home, including the two Chihuahuas she’s dognapped and is keeping in the basement.
There are some good performances in this Avenue Theater production, which is directed by John Ashton; foremost among them is that of Olive McGowen. Gracefully awkward, vulnerable, dutifully and determinedly carrying on in the face of all obstacles, her Sherry is someone you root for, and McGowen provides a bright, gentle charm that warms your heart through the evening. Sullen teenage boys who slowly open up when shown some kindness are easy to play as stereotypes, but Michael Kosko gives a subtle and cliché-free performance in the role of Zack — though perhaps he’s a touch subdued. Mark Collins makes Principal Moore a strong and specific character, eccentric and engaging. The scene in which he tries to cancel the subscription for his wife’s yoga magazine and, pressed for a reason, can’t bring himself to explain that she’s dead — “Yeah, it’s possible for one woman to realize that she doesn’t like yoga. Yeah, she hates it” — is simultaneously moving and amusing. Christine Shutt is convincing as annoying Grace. But a lot of the script’s humor lies with this character, and even though it’s hard to give a lively performance as someone supine and miserable, Shutt could have been a little more energetic and quite a bit funnier in the role. Part of the problem — for all the actors, I think — is the playing area: Voices tend to sound isolated and thin on the Avenue stage, and the space seems to suck away energy.
Although there are some very funny lines in Tigers Be Still, sometimes comments and concepts meant to be funny left me cold: someone being beaned by an economy-size bag of Skittles, for example, and the mere fact of Chihuahuas yapping and scrabbling at the door of their basement prison. If they’re around, shouldn’t they have a function? And what happened to the one that escaped and was never found? Was he eaten? Was that playwright Rosenstock’s original intent, and did she discard it as too grim? If the play is meant to be primarily comic, art-class basketball hoops made of popsicle sticks don’t cut it. If it’s meant to be sweetly touching, you need to care more about the rebirth of Grace and the probable transformation of Sherry’s mother. Except that you don’t like Grace that much, and you’ve never seen said mother; she’s just a series of annoying phone calls. Overall, the evening is pleasantly amusing, and Sherry’s determined optimism remains appealing. But Tigers Be Still needs to either have more heart or be far more wickedly heartless.
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Tigers Be Still, presented by the Avenue Theater through April 2, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925, avenuetheater.com.