BOTTOM LINE: A perfect blend of comedy and drama, Tigers Be Still is as entertaining as it is moving. And it’s a steal — tickets are only $20 for this incredibly professional production with top talent.
Roundabout Underground consistently amazes me with its annual offerings, new works created by emerging artists that are both endearingly resonating and professional as can be. Previous productions include Speech & Debate, The Language of Trees, and Ordinary Days, which were all well received by audiences and critics. This year’s production, Tigers Be Still, fits right in among this list.
This new play by Kim Rosenstock has found the perfect proportions of humor and drama, in a touching story that becomes incredibly affecting. Directed by Sam Gold (Circle Mirror Transformation) and performed by a brilliant cast of four, this production is completely deserving of the money and opportunities undoubtedly thrown its way in its development (the script might say ”indie theatre” but the production says otherwise). Roundabout is the leading not-for-profit theatre in the country and it has resources aplenty — whatever you think about their commercial endeavors, Underground is inarguably an amazing asset to the world of emerging theatre artists.
Tigers Be Still tells the story of five people who, on the outset, are incredibly pathetic. Sherry (Halley Feiffer) has finally secured a teaching job after months of looking and a subsequent bout with depression that left her unable to leave her bedroom. Grace (Natasha Lyonne) is her sister, now a hermit herself since her fiancÁ© cheated on her and she moved back home. Her entire existence has come down to chugging whiskey and watching Top Gun on a loop. The principal of Sherry’s school, Joseph (Reed Birney), is in a perpetual state of forced optimism through rigid dorkiness and although his wife has recently died, he suppresses emotion and soldiers on. Joseph’s 18-year old son Zack (John Magaro) is perhaps the most tragic of them all. With his mom’s recent death, his uninspired job at CVS and no desire to go to college, his future looks like an unavoidable downward spiral.
The fifth character in this story is never seen, although she is frequently spoken to and talked about. Sherry and Grace’s mother has been in her bedroom for months, unable to leave for deep psychological reasons. She is also the ex-girlfriend of Joseph, which is the reason Sherry secured her job in the first place. Their mother encompasses what it means to hit rock bottom. If the other four characters seem dismal, you wonder if a forced solitary existence is next.
Through Rosenstock’s wise plot development, the audience learns why each character behaves as he or she does, and the justification is not only informative but totally believable. All of a sudden, these once pathetic characters blossom with emotional reason and their actions seem plausible (and downright sad in light of their experiences). There is a theme of strength through all of them and their fight becomes one to cheer for. Rosenstock’s use of humor through the script lightens the tone and makes them all the more appealing. The fact that they all fit a recognizable stereotype adds to the relatability.
All four actors evoke an attuned vulnerability, yet they’re still able to take advantage of their comedic moments. These are active roles, and they are up to the challenge. Lyonne is particularly hilarious as Grace. Best known for films (American Pie, Slums of Beverly Hills), it’s awesome to see how comfortable she is onstage. She physicalizes herself brilliantly, spooning her bottle of Jack or plodding into the living room wrapped cocoon-like in a blanket, yet she somehow makes Grace sympathetic despite it all.
Magaro is magnificent as Zack. At first the way he downplays his character seems like an obvious choice, but as his past is revealed it’s clear that the actor’s approach is rooted in complete honesty to Zack’s grief. He also channels the wittiest of angsty teenagers and delivers dry one-liners with a knowing adolescent awareness.
Tigers Be Still is a quirky and sweet story but it’s also dark. It’s certainly humorous throughout, but it’s also rather distressing. As the depressing plot points are revealed, one after the other, it tries to pander to the audience emotionally. It’s not too sad for its own good, but this play does stretch the limits of miserable revelations, given its otherwise funny situations. It ends optimistically though, and that glimmer of hope completes an emotional arc that both the characters and the audience take.
An entertaining show that will leave you with much to think about, Tigers Be Still, is a perfect example of a modern script that offers a complete package when done right. I can’t imagine this show produced better than it is here at Roundabout Underground. With direction that evokes the perfect energy — upbeat through pain but subdued when necessary — it is a totally engaging experience. It’s a heavy story that’s likely to stick with you for some time. And for good reason.
Tigers Be Still plays at the Black Box Theatre, inside the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, at 111 W. 46th St., between 6th and 7th avenues, through November 21. Performances are Tue-Fri 7 PM, Sat 1:30 and 7 PM, and Sun 1:30 and 7 PM. Tickets are $20 and available at roundaboutunderground.org. And for more New York theatre reviews, visit Theatre Is Easy at theasy.com.