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Black Lab Theatre's Tigers Be Still Is Houston Theater at Its Best

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Here, in the intimate downstairs space that is Wildfish Theatre on Post Oak and San Felipe, miracles occur.

Wonders don't often happen in the theater, not with regular occurrence. Only a few each season, and most of those come at you in bits and pieces: a revelatory performance among the ho-hum, an actor's throwaway piece of business that's just right for the character, a perfect bit of scenery you can't take your eyes off of, a detail of costuming that seems to have been sewn in heaven. This miracle at Wildfish, by way of the wizards at Black Lab Theatre and its amazing cast of four, happens to be the real thing -- a truly blessed event.

This theater wonder is Kim Rosenstock's Tigers Be Still (2010), a tender, raucous, sweet comedy that has been making the rounds of regional theaters since its NY -premiere at the prestigious Roundabout Theatre Company. Young playwright Rosenstock has been on an upward trajectory with works such as Discovering Columbus, 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan, her musical Fly By Night and her current success -- a financial one for sure as co-writer and producer -- Fox's New Girl with Zooey Deschanel.

Although Tigers was originally written back in her Yale graduate days, her TV bona fides have paid off handsomely in the reworking. The many scenes are short, impres-sionistic, yet always succinct, mining new emotional ground as the characters (and we) discover more skewed aspects about them. The revelations fall into place at just the right moments, but nothing is forced. The writing is fresh, tinged blue the way people speak today, but always hits home. There's no sound in theater as satisfying as when the audience, suddenly laughing, catches its breath and goes ominously silent when a scene turns dramatic. There are three or four of these moments in Tigers, and they stop your heart. And then the laughs start up again.

Sherry (Samantha Slater), older sister Grace (Lindsay Ehrhardt) and their mother, Wanda (unseen during the play), are at a standstill. They are so discombobulated with what life's thrown at them, they can't move. Literally, they've been in bed or, in Grace's case, ensconced on the couch for months at a time. Sherry, a graduate in art therapy, can't find a job, a boyfriend or any friends her own age. Depressed, she's moved back into Mom's house and has been holed up in her small childhood bed. Grace, once she discovered her fiancé's unfaithfulness, has made very good friends with a bottle of Johnnie Walker. She has left the house periodically to ransack her boyfriend's apartment and steal as much as she can: his two Chihuahuas, his karaoke machine, a poster of Serpico, the kitchen spice rack, the bathroom doorknob. Splayed out on the couch, she wallows in drunken grief watching the love scene from Top Gun over and over with her lovelorn detritus strewn at her feet. Mom stays barricaded upstairs in her room, not letting her children see her since she has ballooned from medication. She communicates with them by telephone.

This unholy riff, something akin to a demented Cherry Orchard, gets a blast of air when Sherry's mom wrangles her a job at the local school as an art teacher. Principal Joseph (Justin Doran), newly widowed, was a boyfriend from high school days, and the old flame apparently still burns. Teen son Zack (Ty Doran), surly and morose, needs anger management, so who better to comfort him than sincere, wistfully out-of-her-league Sherry? This is her first real adult job; she can't make a mess of it, can she? Nervous, flighty, yet eager to succeed, she turns Grace's couch into her home office, even sometimes while Grace is sleeping off the liquor.

Oh, and did I add that a tiger has escaped from the local zoo and has the entire town terrified?

Obvious as symbol, the tiger nevertheless brings the comedy full circle, adding another piquant touch to Rosenstock's cast of gentle loonies and losers. The characters certainly have enough to worry about without a wild beast on the prowl, but each has a beast of sorts inside roaring to be heard. This surreal addition to the wonderfully clueless but precisely drawn people gives the play an extra swirl of loopiness. That we like them all, no matter what, is icing.

In a word, the cast is sublime. In further words, they are electric, moving, superlative. Slater (Sherry), making her Houston debut, I believe, has a standing invitation to come back anytime. From Sherry's nervous, quivering first words to us as she introduces the play using that industrial-size karaoke machine, her feisty little lamb grows into a tiger cub as she finds her confidence. Behind those nerdy glasses and pulled-back hair beats a sincere, generous heart. If you look closely, by play's end her hair is neatly plaited. Sherry's duckling becomes a swan, even if the glasses remain. Slater plays her with bounding giddiness, even when Sherry isn't very enthused, which makes her character even more endearing. Like the B team, we root loudest for her. Slater's so unspoiled and unassuming, she makes each twitter and twitch a personal statement. The goofiest girl in class, she becomes queen of the prom.

Ehrhardt (Grace) has the juiciest role, the most surefire. Who wouldn't want to play the blowsy tart who's so unhappy about her cheating boyfriend who stole her future that she sleeps with the geriatric mailman because she sympathizes with him after seeing a Depends commercial? Easy, no? Ehr-hardt is perfection, whether slurring her words or just lying in a liquored coma. The purple crumpled velour jumpsuit is perfect, too. The last time I saw Ehrhardt, she was the quintessential Victorian young lady, Miss Fairfax in Classical's The Importance of Being Earnest. Her transformation is now -complete.

If Justin Doran has ever given a bad performance, I've never seen it. He is a Houston theater pro of the highest caliber, and Joseph is but another of his impressive turns. Joseph, too, has been caught by life's curve balls and can't ever seem to say what he really wants to. When he tries to cancel his dead wife's magazine subscription, the finality of it all catches in his throat. Zack enters at this point, and Doran imbues Joseph with unremitting pain while shifting immediately into controlled outrage and caustic wit toward the unsuspecting telemarketer. The scene is brief but so telling in its expansiveness thanks to Doran's flawless performance.

Young Ty Doran obviously has picked up some mighty fine pointers from his father (the aforementioned Mr. Doran), for his Zack is all sass and pain, beautifully realized. He's the most believable teenager I've seen onstage in years. No false moves, no false anything. His scene with Sherry as they sit in his mother's shoe closet -- a seduction scene without seduction -- is one of sheer transparency and almost crushing heartbreak.

Director Jordan Jaffe, Black Lab's artistic director, showers this play with both realism and fantasy, keeping a delicate balance between the crazed situations and half-crazed characters. The bizarre is always checked with truth, though, which keeps Rosenstock's sharpness slightly off-kilter and nicely hazy. His team is impressive as well, especially Claire "Jac" Jones's swiftly changing set design (which turns stage right into a classroom, Joseph's office, a Walmart checkout counter and Mom's shoe closet with fluid ease) and Yezminne Zepeda's evocative sound design. Those unseen Chihuahuas in the basement certainly sound annoyed.

This show is Houston theater at its best, or rather theater anywhere at its best. I guarantee, you won't forget it. I'm not one for making predictions, but I'll make this one: When the season is over -- and there are plenty of Houston premieres yet to come -- Black Lab's Tigers Be Still will remain the freshest, most innovative, most deeply felt of them all. Let's roar.

Tigers Be Still Through January 31. Wildfish Theatre, 1703-D1 Post Oak Boulevard, 713-515-4028, www.blacklabtheatre.com.

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