Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story is the tale of the relentlessly cheerful Peter (B. Stanley), insulated by his upper-middle class breeding and his good manners, while he is under attack from the truth-telling ruffian Jerry (Jerry Herbilla).
From the very first moment of this play, we must understand that Peter (another term for Peter might be “you and I”) will be in for a very bad time of it this evening, for reasons he will not fully understand.
And this is the reason that Theatre Du Jour’s earnest production is shipwrecked before it sets sail: its Jerry is not scary. He is not intimidating; and so its Peter cannot be scared or intimidated, and he is not.
The play begins with Peter reading (here: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, an interesting choice) on a bench in Central Park East. Jerry approaches him, unseen, from stage right. In most productions I have attended, Jerry surveys Peter coolly, like a predator planning a kill. Here, Jerry wrings his hands and sweats, as though he had just learned the art of selling Rolex™ knock-offs and Peter is to be his first mark. Jerry’s approach to Peter is tentative and strained, and Peter, instead of being vaguely threatened as he should be, is solicitous and welcoming, almost paternal. (This is not Stanley’s fault. It is axiomatic that an actor must react to what his scene partner presents, or else everything seems artificial.)
This dynamic controls at least the first third of the play, and when Jerry finally turns troublesome – as the text requires him to – we in the audience are unprepared for it. Peter, too, seems puzzled rather than fearful; he has not (and cannot) access the wellspring of apprehension Albee has planted for him because Jerry has not led him to it.
Eventually, though, the consequences of this unfortunate acting or directorial choice fall away, and we are confronted with the power and beauty of Albee’s story. Peter just wants to exchange clichés and trivia about the weather with Jerry, but Jerry insists that “every once in a while I like to talk to somebody, really
talk; like to get to know somebody, know all about him.” And so he does, as Peter somewhat reluctantly reveals his life, swaddled in an Upper East Side apartment with his wife and two daughters and two cats and two parakeets, an executive position in a printing house and a $200,000 annual income (up from $18,000 in the original 1959 production). Then it’s Jerry’s turn. He wants to tell Peter what he saw at the zoo but first he must spin out his present life: the son of drunks, now dead, he lives an empty, solitary life in a miserable West Side boarding house, surrounded by frightening people he does not understand, and is confronted daily by the amorous attentions of his grotesque landlady and the fierce hostility of her enormous dog. He devises, with Napoleonic aggressiveness, a campaign against the dog, but when it almost succeeds, it breaks his heart. He goes to the zoo, finally, because he hopes to understand animals and thus heal his spirit. “It’s just that if you can’t deal with people, you have to make a start somewhere. With animals! Don’t you see? A person has to have some way of dealing with something. If not with people, something. With a bed, with a cockroach… with a…with a carpet…with a wisp of smoke…”
This is fabulous writing, as is Jerry’s Coleridge-like insight a few moments later that God is the sum of all the things we despise, reject, or ignore. Herbilla does these lines justice, and this production is at its best when it surrenders itself, as here, to the compelling language of the play. Alas, much of this production is consumed with self-consciousness. At the end of this fearsome dialogue, Peter must be too numb to respond, and must afterward be near tears, but in the production I saw Peter appeared to have nodded off, and the tears, when they came, seemed suspiciously like actor’s tears.
Both actors were struggling with their lines, although by the time you see the show, this problem may well be resolved. The reason imperfect line memorization threatens a show’s integrity is less that we might hear the wrong words (although Albee famously warns that his plays must contain all the words he wrote, in the order he wrote them) but that the actors may be so distracted by getting the lines right that they forget to seem spontaneous and unrehearsed. This happened several times in the production I saw, and there were patches of dialogue with unseemly pauses between them.
This isn’t a bad production, but it would still benefit from some additional work. It would be to the production’s advantage if Herbilla and director Kris Roth reconsidered Jerry’s characterization, and additional drilling would doubtlessly make Herbilla and Stanley work better together.
A number of alert readers have pointed out that Albee no longer permits professional companies to perform The Zoo Story as a stand-alone piece, requiring instead that it be combined with Albee’s newly-written first act, Homelife, in Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo. The company has informed us that the publishers permitted them to produce The Zoo Story by itself due to the DC Arts Center’s tiny size (it seats fifty).
The Zoo Story
By Edward Albee
Produced by Theatre Du Jour
Directed by Kris Roth
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
The Zoo Story runs thru April 10, 2010.