Treating depression and anger with art therapy, offbeat humor in ‘Tigers Be Still’

By Jennifer Farrar, AP
Thursday, October 7, 2010

‘Tigers Be Still’ treats depression with wry humor

NEW YORK — Sometimes it helps to tackle uncomfortable subjects with humor, and so emerging playwright Kim Rosenstock has written “Tigers Be Still,” a wry, dark comedy that looks at two families coping with grief, anger and paralyzing depression.

Perfectly cast and thoughtfully directed by Sam Gold, the sweetly funny play is performing at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s small Black Box space as part of its Underground series that brings the work of new writers to the stage.

While the offbeat humor about people trying to deal with “moving on” sometimes threatens to veer into television sitcom territory, expert direction and acting help maintain a certain level of dignity. Even when some stolen pug dogs may have to be rescued from the basement.

“This is the story of how I stopped being a total disaster and got my life on track and did NOT let overwhelming feelings of anxiousness and loneliness and uselessness just like totally eat my brain.” Those are the introductory words of Sherry, an emotionally fragile but newly optimistic art therapist.

She’s played by Halley Feiffer with a quirky, likeably neurotic stage presence perfectly suited to this fragile but determined young woman. Sherry is gamely trying to cope with her own life and also get her dysfunctional family household back to normal.

All the women in Sherry’s family became housebound during the past year, which has caused her father to simply disappear. Sherry fell into a months-long despair over not getting a job, while her older sister Grace was recently unceremoniously dumped by her longtime fiance.

Their unseen mother, Wanda, started it all by taking to her bed a year ago, after a medically caused weight gain, and currently communicates with her daughters only by telephone — from her upstairs bedroom. Wanda did bestir herself to call in a favor from an old high-school sweetheart, though, to help get Sherry her new job.

Sherry tells the story of her family’s emotional progress in a series of humor-tinged vignettes, as she begins her part-time job as an art teacher at the local middle school. She also meets at home with her first private client, Zack, the angry teenage son of her new boss, middle-school principal Joseph Moore.

Natasha Lyonne is absolutely hilarious as Grace, an unkempt, weeping, self-pitying figure rolling around on the family sofa that’s covered with her used tissues and junk-food wrappers. Wearing a sweat suit and her wedding veil, Grace mostly sucks on a bottle of bourbon or sleeps. When awake, she compulsively watches “Top Gun” over and over, when she’s not out stealing her ex-boyfriend’s possessions from their former apartment, or locking his two beloved pugs in her family’s basement.

In a typical exchange that highlights Rosenstock’s humor, Grace blearily tells the newly energized Sherry that she was more fun and “mellow” when she was unemployed. When Sherry snaps back, “I was paralyzed with depression,” Grace calmly replies, “You were a great listener.”

The zaniness is somewhat grounded by down-to-earth principal Moore, played with poignancy, restraint and comedic undertones by the talented Reed Birney. Moore is also grieving, for his deceased wife, and worried about his uncommunicative son, while trying to protect his school from a prowling tiger that recently escaped from the local zoo. He also has a past with Wanda, who was prom queen to his king in high school, and has daffy reminiscences of their youthful hi-jinks.

John Magaro’s subtle portrayal of Zack renders him immensely appealing, despite Zack’s volatile personality, rudeness and skepticism. Using teenage irony to convey his despair, he says things like, “Sometimes I can feel my brain trying to flee my skull. It’s nothing. Continue.” But he gradually warms to Sherry’s insistently upbeat, earnest and perky approach to helping him.

In fact, Sherry’s determination to help others beat off threats from their mental “tigers” is at the heart of this play. Despite the often sharp jibes of the dialogue, genuine affection is displayed among the characters. In turn, the audience roots for them to all to get up their nerve to confront their various issues and defeat the tigers.


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