A huge wild feline escapes from a zoo and terrorizes a neighborhood in Mark Chrisler’s Worse Than Tigers. We never see the tiger, but we sure hear it, growling, purring, and mauling residents just outside the tasteful and immaculate home of an uptight couple.
But when is a tiger not a tiger? In a play, of course, where such an outsized beast is bound to stand for something – something inevitably “worse than tigers.”
We first meet the heroes of this uneven comedy-drama – married couple Olivia (Shannon Marie Sullivan) and Humphrey (Braeson Herold) – as they sit on their living-room loveseat, looking at their smartphones and drily commenting and bickering about the lateness of an expected guest. Playing out in rapid-fire Pinter-esque stichomythia, this long establishing scene sets us up for more absurdism to come. It comes without delay, when the pair react dispassionately to a text message reporting that their friend’s tardiness is on account of death by tiger.
It’s all quite absorbing, and when Kurt (Zach Wegner), a combative and egotistical policeman with a murky connection to Olivia enters fleeing the beast, and barricades the door, a new dimension to the story opens. Kurt’s swaggering animal magnetism and Olivia’s and Humphrey’s reactions to it are very funny. Meanwhile the ways the couple are repressing their feelings – and, as we slowly learn, their past – grow explicitly and implicitly clearer in an emotionally engaging way as Sullivan and Herold skillfully reveal more of their characters’ layers.
But when Olivia heads off to bed and the question comes up of where Kurt is going to sleep, the action starts to drag. Inanity replaces edginess. Even a tense scene with a gun can’t revive the energy.
The second act, with Kurt gone but the tiger now even closer, reveals further depths, but too often by telling rather than showing. Things pick up when Olivia’s rage finally unwinds Humphrey’s own feelings. Her climactic speech hits home – in fact, it could easily be an effective audition monologue. But the journey there has been too stop-and-go.
Intermittently funny and unevenly powerful, Worse Than Tigers is amusingly absurdist and patently symbolist, yet on another level grittily real. That’s thanks in part to sharply defined performances by the excellent cast, marshaled efficiently by director Jaclyn Biskup. Its style calls other great playwrights to mind, and its plot resonates with classic dramas by the likes of Sam Shepard and Edward Albee. But Chrisler has found a distinct mode of his own, and this production serves him well. Consistent drive is what the play lacks.