The titular tigers — tiger singular, actually — are incidental in hot young New York playwright Kim Rosenstock’s dysfunctional-family comedy “Tigers Be Still,” a West Coast premiere currently closing SF Playhouse’s season.
The unseen, escaped-from-the-zoo predator is not really necessary. Rosenstock’s poignant examination of several depressed individuals whose lives intersect is charming and resonant enough without the metaphor of a dangerous beast representing characters’ fears.
Sherry, a trained art therapist who occasionally narrates the story, is barely out of the in-bed-all-day doldrums and she’s nervously starting her first teaching job after extended unemployment.
Played with a touching over-alacrity by Melissa Quine, she’s 24 and has never had a boyfriend.
Her slovenly sister, Grace — a pitch-perfect portrayal by Rebecca Schweitzer — is a drunken, sobbing blob on the sofa. With Grace’s engagement recently broken, she’s comically bereft, crooning melodramatically enraged stanzas of “The Rose” over the phone on her cheating ex-fiance’s voice mail.
Unseen Mom phones the girls constantly. She’s upstairs, hiding; a former prom queen, she’s recently become fat from medication and can’t face anyone, not even her daughters. Their father disappeared a month ago.
Sherry’s boss, middle school principal Joseph (a vulnerably discombobulated Remi Sandri), recently lost his wife under horrific circumstances and is struggling to deal with his grief, along with his uncommunicative teenage son, Zack (an excellent Jeremy Kahn, slack-jawed, slump-shouldered and vacant-looking).
A long-ago connection between Joseph and the girls’ mother fuels pieces of the plot; the two fractured families come together slowly in obliquely healing ways.
On the page, “Tigers” might seem slight, sitcom-ish, even contrived. But theatrically, under Amy Glazer’s sensitive direction and with such fully committed and unerringly truthful performances all around, Rosenstock’s script is surprisingly rich and engaging, evoking belly laughs and lumps in the throat.
Gemlike moments abound: Zack and Joseph silently, quizzically trying to scope each other out; Joseph, his pain not quite hidden, attempting to cancel his dead wife’s magazine subscription; Sherry wistfully telling her mother, on the phone, that she misses her; Zack’s wonderfully awkward and misconceived attempt to kiss Sherry; and Grace’s bleary-eyed fixation on the TV screen.
Brendan Aanes’ sound design stands out among the generally fine production values that we’ve come to expect at SF Playhouse. But Bill English’s overly detailed set is not minimal enough to encompass the various scene changes.
Ultimately, Rosenstock reveals how, in the smallest and quirkiest and most accidental ways, we help each other out of the mire.
Tigers Be Still
Presented by the SF Playhouse
Where: 533 Sutter St., San Francisco
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes July 30
Tickets: $30 to $50
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org