Edward Albee’s startlingly beautiful and disturbing debut, The Zoo Story, gets few airings, despite its notoriety. Professional productions are prohibited, which leaves this challenging one-act to academic and amateur settings. To further narrow the possibilities for production, The Zoo Story is not your typical community theater fare, and often needs to be paired with similar Absurdist shorts by like-minded authors (Beckett, et. al.) in order to round out the evening. It is a wonderful opportunity, then, to have access to a capable staging of The Zoo Story by itself. Mixed Magic Theatre in Pawtucket gives us that access and is highly capable of rendering it justice without any added attractions/distractions.
The static setting comes across as a lobby ad for Central Park. An enlarged quadtych of a charming, almost bucolic New York scene hangs upstage of a solitary park bench, an iconic image. On this bench sits Peter, a quiet man reading his book, and with the entrance of an immediately off-putting stranger, Peter’s life is about to change forever. It is this promise of menace and possible connection that pulls us in from the stranger’s first line, and Director Matt Fraza has wisely stayed out of the way of the script (aside from a few minor changes to accommodate the current time setting) and let Albee’s precision stream of consciousness do its work. Tom Chace’s Jerry fires the opening salvo of his one-man war with the repeated declaration, “I’ve been to the zoo.” Here, Chace comes across as a man slightly unhinged, possibly homeless, and completely alpha. However, as his unsolicited stories unfold, there is a hint of urbanity, education and a fall from grace that belies his lower class standing. Rich Morra’s nebbish, cultured Peter would appear to be an open book, but has a sense of sadness and loss simmering underneath. Chace manages to portray Jerry as not just a threat to Peter’s worldview (and possibly his life), but as a sympathetically disconnected man grasping for a connection to someone, anyone. As Jerry weaves his web of fascination around Peter (who rarely moves or speaks except in mild protest or feeble encouragement), we are forced to constantly reevaluate our opinions of both men.
Chace paces like a feral cat throughout, almost to the point of distraction, and when Morra’s Peter asks “Why do you just stand there?” it almost seems sarcastic. Eventually, Chace settles into a sweat-drenched creepiness that channels George Carlin on meth and the execution of the particular rhythms Albee prescribes are smoother. The hardest trick to pull off in The Zoo Story is to convince us that, while Peter can leave at any point, he remains, aghast, seemingly kept against his will through the sheer force of Jerry’s personality and the promise of a tantalizing story. Of course, Peter has his own demons, only hinted at in the script and fleshed out in a companion piece that Albee wrote after the fact. The absence of a wedding ring may signify Peter’s struggle (or simply an oversight during preview performances), but any sense of “Why wouldn’t he just leave?” is tempered by the fact that we find ourselves compelled to hear Jerry’s stories as well. We know Jerry will join Peter on the bench, because again, he tells us (and Peter) exactly what he will do. “I’ll start walking around in a little while, and eventually I’ll sit down.”
He does, and Peter is forced to confront his own manhood, his own insecurities and, it seems, an opportunity to embrace the horrifying freedom of having nothing left to lose. While Chace has the lion’s share of the dialogue, Morra actually has the harder job of sustaining an arc of mostly stunned silence as Jerry’s horrifying recollections embrace him. Once again, Albee and Jerry tell Peter what he must do. “Don’t react, Peter – just listen.” Morra underplays his hand here and mostly succeeds by simply doing nothing but reflect our own morbid fascination.
The Zoo Story’s conclusion is both inevitable and unforeseen and is meant to be experienced firsthand, but an unfortunate choice of prop keeps the impact from being what it fully could be. Nevertheless, the work of both performers is still very solid and the impact is no less than what the story intends. Zoo Story should be seen while you have the chance. Watch, listen and decide for yourself what lengths you would go to in order to find a connection in this world.
Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story runs through May 19 at Mixed Magic Theatre in Pawtucket. For tickets and more details, visit http://mmtri.com