A review of “Worse Than Tigers,” on stage at ACT in a RED STAGE production.

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There’s a hungry, ferocious feline lingering outside the front door of Olivia and Humphry’s apartment in Mark Chrisler’s “Worse Than Tigers,” but what’s inside might be much more dangerous.

The inaugural production from upstart company RED STAGE, “Tigers” is a spiky, arch comedy of marital dysfunction, pushed just to the brink of absurdity — until it’s not. That lurking tiger was always an obvious metaphor, but Chrisler’s script feels compelled to literalize it in a scolding second act that diminishes the appealing weirdness of the first.

Still, this is a strong debut from RED STAGE, founded by ACT Theatre’s Literary & Artistic Manager Emily Penick. As director, Penick likes to draw out silences to their breaking point, and in her perfectly paced first act, the action teeters on the edge of the uncanny valley — not quite realistic, but somehow a familiar depiction of human interaction all the same.


‘Worse Than Tigers’

By Mark Chrisler. Through April 17 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $20-$25 (206-292-7676 or acttheatre.org).

Married couple Olivia (Kirsten Potter) and Humphry (Bradford Farwell) are planning to welcome an old friend for dinner, but he’s late, so they’re passing the time scrolling through Facebook on their iPhones and not saying much to each other. Positioning a couple as emotional and physical opposites is a well-worn tactic, but it works beautifully in Potter’s and Farwell’s diametrically opposed performances; hers almost regal in its aloofness, his like a compressed spring that threatens to uncoil at any second.

When the oblivious Humphry tries to tell a joke to lighten the mood, he inadvertently wanders into an area littered with relational land mines, and Olivia responds in kind with a bit that’s as pointed as Humphry’s is clueless.

Her joke also seems to manifest a pounding at the door. It’s Kurt (John William Watkins), a cop looking for refuge from that escaped tiger, and an apparent acquaintance of Olivia’s.

Watkins merrily embraces Kurt’s alpha-male bravado as he toys with Humphry’s accommodating politesse in an escalating campaign of degradation. A negotiation over whether Kurt will sleep with Olivia is “Tigers” at its prickly best, Watkins’ withering condescension locking horns with Farwell’s panicky attempts at avoiding confrontation.

It doesn’t all go wrong in Act Two, as Potter and Farwell are more than capable of shifting gears as the play morphs into a charged Edward Albee riff. Emotions are laid bare, a secret about their past is revealed, and Chrisler becomes dead set on indicting social media for its anesthetizing effects on relationships and emotions.

Potter’s monologue to that point is sincerely and movingly performed. It’s also a sanctimonious, overly simplistic screed that sees Chrisler overreaching in an attempt to make a profound statement about the way we live now. Turns out the only thing worse than the ubiquity of vacuous Facebook posts is a solemn condemnation of them for our collective inability to feel.