Tigers Be Still

Tigers Be Still. Command or fact? In this lovely little play currently running at Roundabout's Underground theatre, it seems more like a command but not to actual tigers; rather, it is a command to the tigers stirring within us. Once again, Sam Gold directs with care a thoughtful and thoroughly enjoyable play. I'm familiar with his directing work from two previous collaborations with playwright Annie Baker. Here, he teams up with playwright Kim Rosenstock for her look at four fractured folks who are just trying to manage. Upon walking in to the Underground black box theatre, we see Sherry, played with nerdy vulnerability and strength by Halley Feiffer, singing along to 80s tunes and working on a popsicle-stick house. Sherry proceeds to be our guide for the story, talking in to a mic and directly addressing the audience, telling us "this is the story of..." or "this is how we..." Some might say that having such direct addresses and using what is essentially a voice over technique is lazy writing - that the writer couldn't express the "voice overs" in actual dialogue or stage business. (Arrested Development once - in a satisfyingly sardonic way - made this point.) I disagree. I think, when used judiciously and well, as it was here, it can be a terrifically useful rhetorical device. In this instance it helped to keep the pace moving along at its proper speed, without the audience having to sit through long scene changes or long bouts of dialogue that really only serve as exposition. This way, the writer, director and all the actors could get down to the business at hand: Telling a story of recovery - of finding the stillness within.

Sherry is 24 and living at home with her bed-bound mother (whom we never meet) and her older sister, Grace (Natasha Lyonne). Grace spends most of her time on the couch after being jilted by her (now ex-)fiance. Sherry is very excited because after a bout of depression, she is turning her life around. At rise, she is getting ready to start her first job. Well, jobs, actually. She's been hired by Principal Joseph Moore (the always wonderful Reed Birney) to be the art teacher at his school; she's also been hired by Principal Moore to take on his son, Zack (an appealing, James Franco-ish John Magaro), as an art therapy patient to help Zack process the loss of his mother. Sherry's mother, though self-confined to her bed, helped land Sherry the job; she and Joseph dated in high school, and were even named prom king and queen. On Sherry's first day on the job at school, Principal Moore is forced to hold an emergency assembly to announce that a tiger is loose from the zoo. (My favorite line: When telling everyone to buddy up, a student asks him who his buddy is. Joseph responds, "I don't need a buddy. I have a rifle.")

The weeks pass along, with little mention of an actual tiger, but Sherry soldiers on and try to make still the tigers within everyone around her. She tries to cajole her mother out of bed. She pleads with her sister to stop stealing her ex-fiance's belongings and to get off the couch. She endeavors to breakthrough to Zack and get him to talk about his violent outbursts. Meanwhile, she is growing into an ever more confident young woman, determined to keep on keeping on.

Tigers Be Still is very funny but also very touching. The four actors are deft at moving from laugh-out-loud funny to near tears in a matter of moments, never once overselling it or resorting to histrionics. Director Gold once again shows a flair for timing. In Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens (the two Annie Baker plays I saw that he directed), I praised Gold for pacing the plays the way they needed to be paced and not in a way that was more commercially satisfying. With those two plays, that meant that things moved slowly - but perfectly slowly for those shows. Things move quicker here, as they should, and Gold shows that he can pace comedy just as well as raw, poignant drama. Kudos to Gold, playwright Rosenstock and the four actors for capturing this heightened reality with grace and aplomb.