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Tigers Be Still — Azuka Theatre at Off-Broad Street

Tigers -- interiorKim Rosenstock’s style is perfect for television writing.  Her play, “Tigers Be Still,” produced by Azuka Theatre, lacks the texture and craft to work in the theater.

Rosenstock offers a lot. She has an active sense of humor, but in “Tigers,” her concepts fall more into the category of, “Hey, that’s a funny idea,” than the stuff from which solid, laughworthy comedy is made because those ideas seem more contrived than inspired and don’t lead very far.

The author wends in the direction of “strange for strange sake” and imposes a series preposterous situations, including one involving a tiger, that seem labored and static in a way that leaves the audience momentarily amused while waiting for the next zany brainwave. Rosenstock seems to think that simply stating a goofy thought is enough on which to build genuine drama or foment consequence. She creates enticingly loony premises but has no idea about how to develop them to reap comic hay or even keep an audience interested in her characters.

Her jokes suffer from the same laziness. “Tigers Be Still,” has some good one-line gags, but they are rare and spring from a rimshot — ba-roomp-boomp — sitcom formula more often than from plot and character. You can almost sense a camera zooming in to take a close-up of the character delivering the set-up line, inching even closer to the one giving the punch line, then panning back to the first character for a reaction shot. Rosenstock seems to create material just to create material. Her conceptual mind is fertile. She can come up with good ideas. But her execution is facile and devoid of genuine emotion or depth.  “Tigers Be Still” pretends to substance that isn’t there or doesn’t emerge palpably enough on the Azuka stage.  Rosenstock constantly mistakes flippancy for wit and the bizarre for the touching. Her work smacks of Hollywood superficiality that tries to palm off oddity as texture. Azuka director Kevin Glaccum works to keep things as bright and zingy as he can, but except for the last four minutes, there is no feeling or theatrical intensity for the audience to embrace.

“Tigers Be Still” ends in a way that is sweet and gives you a warm feeling, but getting to that ending can be tedious in spite of some sharp acting by Trevor William Fayle and Felicia Leicht. Rosenstock’s writing takes too much for granted. It asks you to buy a situation wholesale and accept it as poignant or funny on face value rather than by artfully revealing how real people respond to demoralizing things that happen to them or joyful things that don’t.

The play tells instead of shows, and Rosenstock’s telling tends to be glib and in shorthand.  (Hollywood again!) Fayle and Leicht endow their characters with distinct personalities that maximize Rosenstock’s material, Leicht getting a headstart because her role, Grace, is the only one that is physicalized in a way that lets you see her completely living her malaise, but Glaccum’s direction for Azuka tends to treat “Tigers Be Still,” and not without reason, as a lightweight cartoon that accentuates the slapdash nature of Rosenstock’s script and, to mix animal metaphors, makes “Tigers Be Still” into a shaggy dog story that doesn’t wag its tail until the last sequences, when it is  too late for a few moments of wistfulness to save the facile triteness that preceded it.

“Tigers Be Still” has a promising launching point.  It introduces us to a family, the Wickmans, in which a mother hasn’t left her room for months, one sister makes a bed of the living room sofa and endlessly watches a video of “Top Gun,” and the other sister emerges from her bed only when she is suddenly offered a full-time job. That set-up, added to by the employed sister attempting to use art therapy to help an 18-year-old boy with anger management, generates many questions and gives a playwright the chance to provide some fun as she clears up a slew of mysteries.

Rosenstock wastes the opportunity. She seems to be more interested the weirdness of her construct, and letting it rest as weird, than to follow up on a character’s angst in any meaningful or satisfying way. Vanity, depression, hopelessness, and neurosis are plausible reasons for taking to one’s bed ad infinitum. Just as finding a special place to be alone and cope with guilt and sadness can make total sense. But Rosenstock doesn’t explore these traits, these potential cripplers of the psyche, as much as she utilizes them to suggest potentially comic situations or settles the audience’s curiosity with a quick revelation that fulfills your desire to know but has little theatrical impact. Both the manifestation and the conclusion of her undercooked plotting are handled too glibly, too neatly to matter or establish real drama or comedy. Finding out why the women of the Wickman family have barricaded themselves from society, or why a young man finds peaceful refuge among his late mother’s shoes, has no dramatic punch. Rosenstock presents her payoffs too directly, too blandly for them to tug at one’s heart or allow one to share in a character’s relief at explaining her or his motives or exposing her or his fears or secrets. Themes of the assumed irrational possibly being totally rational, or of extreme behavior being a stepping stone to maturity and positive action, emerge, but they are not played out engagingly on the Azuka stage. Rosenstock’s script is essentially shallow, and Glaccum’s farcical approach to Rosenstock’s parable diminishes the human qualities that might make “Tigers Be Still” affecting.

Only Trevor William Fayle pierces through all of “Tiger Be Still’s” obstacles to give a natural, ungimmicked performance on a realistically human scale.

Fayle uses the rebel traits of his character, Zack, to portray a jaded, introspective young man who has little ambition, disdain for authority, contempt for most other people, and a lack of direction.

Zack is mourning the loss of his mother who died in a way for which he feels responsible. You can see the weight of Zack’s grief on Fayle even in “Tiger Be Still’s” lighter moments because Fayle plays Zack as if he’s carrying a burden, one you think at first might be a juvenile’s way of facing the fear of having to become and behave as an adult.

Fayle is funny because he delivers his lines in a way that is in keeping with his character instead of as toss-offs for a laugh track. He is affecting because his posture is always tense, and he always seems ready to lash out in the kind of rage Rosenstock’s lead character, Sherry, is hired to control.

Fayle never seems mannered or self-conscious. He doesn’t play his scenes as if he was an actor in a comedy. He plays as if he was a young man with intense feelings in an intense situation. He transcends the bizarreness around Zack because his behavior is shown to be logical, and except for his anger, Fayle’s Zack isn’t saddled with the craziness that Rosenstock assigned the Wickman women.

From line readings, even when his dialogue is a simple ‘no,’ to scenes in which Zack confides his innermost feelings to Sherry, Fayle is true to his character and conveys a flesh-and-blood person that gives Azuka’s “Tigers Be Still” its one core of reality and one character we can depend on to show a wide and honest range of human emotion.

Felicia Leicht’s triumph is getting comic mileage and eliciting some empathy for the oddest of Rosenstock’s characters, Grace.

Leicht finds the right tones for Grace’s constant whines and has the right timing to put across Grace’s funniest lines without overplaying or pushing the joke.

Grace is getting over a failed romance, one that was supposed to lead to the altar by spending her days on her mother’s sofa, watching “Top Gun,” and basking over the booty she’s taken from her ex’s condo, including a pair of chihuahuas we hear yapping in the basement thanks to Jay Gilman’s realistic sound design. One of Rosenstock’s best lines describes her as “spooning a bottle of Jack Daniels,” and Leicht plays the boozy, sleep-addled Grace with a comedian’s aplomb. She is always entertaining and always gives her scenes some heft.

Though Grace is a type, another of Rosenstock’s comic constructs, Leicht makes her human and makes Grace welcome on stage even when what the character is doing or saying borders on the irritating.

Anna Zaida Szapiro, as Sherry, comes on too strong and too chirpily to be the general voice of reason in “Tigers Be Still.”

From her first exuberant readings, you see Szapiro giving a performance instead of portraying a person living through a trying period of her life. She emphasizes words and makes broad gestures as an actress would, but not as a person does. Especially one as shy and reserved as Rosenstock says Sherry is.

Szapiro has some good moments when she is trying to reason with Grace or listening to Zack pour out his heart and demonstrate his first adult affection, but it is she that establishes the cartoonish tone that dominates Glaccum’s production. Sherry doesn’t seem real. She doesn’t seem like someone who is able to face all that is going on with her mother and sister and the responsibilities of being a teacher and playing therapist to Zack. Szapiro endows her with too  much naivety and too exasperated an attitude.

Szapiro can be sincere while talking about Sherry’s determination not to fail at her first post-college job, but she makes her pivotal character seem flimsy and unequipped for the tasks ahead of her or what she has to achieve to keep her home, her mother, Grace, and Zack on even keel.

Szapiro makes the shrewdness Sherry shows while giving Grace and Zack a peek into their own problems and how to solve them appear to be accidental. She also nods in self-satisfaction when Sherry realizes she has made a breakthrough in getting Grace or Zack to move forward. The portrayal is consistent and shows Szapiro can certainly act, but all the cheerleader goodness doesn’t quite capture Sherry’s character.

Jared Michael Delaney also seems cartoony as Zack’s father and the principal of the school in which Sherry teaches art with Zack as her assistant. The “Saved By the Bell” lightness of his performance kept his character, Mr. Moore, from seeming remotely like a real person and gets in the way in scenes when Moore is trying to bond with Zack.  It also makes it less convincingly when Moore talks about his late wife or his high school affection for Sherry’s  mother.

I had an “ah” moment — Make that an “ahhhh” moment at the end of “Tigers Be Still,” and I love the title, but I found watching Rosenstock’s play rough going, even with Fayle and Leicht leavening the experience so deftly. I also wish plays would refrain from beginning with narration, e.g. “This is a story about…” and go right into the action, showing instead of telling being an issue again. “Tigers Be Still” actually uses the “This is a story…” construction nicely because the last line of the play also begins with the clause. At least one of my pet peeves was employed for a good purpose (but I still wish narration would be used sparingly in plays unless it is written with the skill of a Peter Schaffer or Tennessee Williams).

Sara Outing creates a storm of clutter as Grace gathers all of her ex’s possessions around the couch she rarely leaves. She also makes clever work of a set that has to contain a half-dozen places while keeping the Wickman living room relatively untouched.

“Tigers Be Still,” produced by Azuka Theatre, runs through Sunday, May 25 at the Off-Broad Street Theatre, 1636 Sansom Street (17th and Sansom), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $25 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-563-1100 or by going online to www.azukatheatre.org.

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