After she catches her fiancé sleeping with a podiatrist, Grace (Rebecca Schweitzer) spends her days cradling a bottle of Jack Daniel's on the couch. Occasionally she rouses herself to croon an off-key rendition of Bette Midler's "The Rose" into her ex's karaoke machine. When she's especially down, she watches the love scene from Top Gun, mouthing the words to Berlin's "Take My Breath Away." Meanwhile, her sister Sherry (Melissa Quine), fresh from her own brush with paralyzing depression, sings early Madonna while building houses out of Popsicle sticks.
In the bleakly comic world of Kim Rosenstock's Tigers Be Still, making its West Coast premiere at SF Playhouse, grieving people articulate their emotions only by retreating to the mass-cultural touchstones of their messed-up childhoods. These characters cope in the prefab language of pop, which is to say that they hardly cope at all.
The play begins with a minor crisis: A tiger has just escaped from the zoo. The whole town is on alert, and everyone must stay indoors — all the better to go slightly crazy. Grace has stolen her ex-fiancé's Chihuahuas and locked them in the closet. Sherry, a recent college graduate, wants to begin her career, but she's finding it difficult to locate a steady job as an art therapist. Their father vanished some time ago. And their mother, a former beauty queen who suffers from an autoimmune disorder, lives upstairs and communicates with her daughters entirely via telephone. Call it suburban Gothic.
Meanwhile, Joseph (Remi Sandri) attempts to recover from the death of his wife, while his son Jack (Jeremy Kahn) alternates between violent outbursts and near-catatonic depression. Joseph decides that art therapy might knock his son out of his funk, so he sends Jack to Sherry for treatment. The joke, of course, is that Sherry could use a little treatment herself.
The story may be overstuffed for a 90-minute comedy. But Amy Glazer, one of the Bay Area's most dependable directors, orchestrates this madness with her usual clarity and confidence. It helps that her cast is well-matched to its roles. I especially enjoyed Quine's portrayal of the eager-to-please therapist who is desperate to prove herself emotionally stable. (As one character tells her, "Just because you're all functional doesn't mean you won't hit rock bottom again.") Even better is Kahn's spot-on portrayal of a dead-eyed kid whose apathy masks heartbreaking guilt and grief. In his final scene with Quine, he nails a difficult balance between sweetness and awkwardness, all underscored with the same crushing despondency. In fact, he's so effective at portraying profound unhappiness that it's a relief when he smiles during the curtain call.
Not that the show is a downer. For all its heavy themes and maudlin developments, Tigers Be Still is seldom less than hilarious. Rosenstock understands the overlap between comic and self-destructive behaviors: With just a few tweaks, she transforms binge drinking and sexual hunger into melancholy slapstick. "There's a fine line between the stupidest thing you can do and the sexiest thing you can do," one character observes — and Rosenstock's lost souls frequently stumble into the former.
In its blunt symbolism and psychology, in its eagerness to include one too many story elements, Tigers Be Still shows many signs of its author's inexperience. The play's biggest weakness is its titular conceit. The whole tiger-on-the-loose business never feels necessary; these characters are compelling enough that they hardly require a roving metaphor-at-large. (Everyone seems to forget about the tiger for long stretches, anyway.) Rosenstock wrote the piece while still an MFA student at Yale. (It premiered off-Broadway last year.) Since then, she's wasted no time fulfilling her considerable promise. Her musical Fly by Night premiered last month at TheatreWorks in Mountain View, and she's written a well-received play about the Leda myth called 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan.
All of that is enough to make you hope that, one day, Rosenstock will return to Tigers Be Still and drop the tiger altogether. Lord knows her human characters are capable of doing plenty of crazy shit without any interference from the rest of the animal kingdom. The zoo, I'm afraid, will just have to fend for itself.