Edward Albee burst onto the theater scene as an experimental maverick, inciting controversy and confusion and riding the wave that O'Neill and Beckett caught before him until the virtue of their work redefined them as the center of contemporary theater rather than its edge. Forty-two years after his first play, Albee has followed the path of these past masters, taking the edge with him on his journey to the theater's mainstream and leaving a wonderfully distorted and misshapen medium in his wake.
The Zoo Story, Albee's first theatrical venture, a two-character play set on a park bench in Central Park, was an instant hit as an experimental one-act, taking on the theater of the absurd on a bill with Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape. It has become a standard for actors, playwrights and directors in search of theater's essence.
There is irony in the Tri-Lakes Theatre Group's staging of The Zoo Story, framing the stage with the walls of the current exhibit at the Tri-Lakes Center for the Arts. Has Albee become so respectable that his bare-bones set and in-your-face script now hangs amidst a community's fine art? Are we to approach The Zoo Story as a museum piece, a relic from another era, mounted and tagged and to be handled only with clean white gloves?
Thankfully, Tri-Lakes takes neither tack. If anything, they rough up the romance of the play, turning its idyllic Central Park bench into a wasteland littered with society's debris. The hardened, world-weary perspective that has grown out of the script's time takes some of the edge off the play. In a day when even the criminally insane have lost their luster and are instantly dismissed from the cultural consciousness, it takes a different kind of poking to prod an audience into attentiveness.
Jerry, the random psychotic character who interrupts Peter's relaxing park bench reading, is the quintessential antagonist, a character provoking action and challenging everyone near the stage. Andrew Porter's obsessively focused interpretation establishes the character's mindset early on, letting the audience in on his bent vision of the world he is walking through, block-by-block, from the Village to the Upper West Side. There is an unwavering, unblinking precision to the performance, and although his imbalance is immediately apparent, the edge of danger is blunted by a sense of manageability about Jerry. Porter leads us to believe that what we see is what we get with the character, and in believing that we are seeing all, we fall for the comfortable ruse that we can keep it at arm's length.
Robert Tiffany has the challenging role of Peter, existing as the center of Jerry's orbit. His two-parakeet family is nothing but grist for Jerry's mill, and his raison d'tre through most of the play is primarily to be a foil for Jerry, a verbal sparring partner, a target for Jerry's blows more important for demonstrating their impact than for his ability to return the fire. Tiffany makes the most of the character, coloring the performance with nuance and suggestion. Since Peter says so little, it's easy to imagine what he is thinking, particularly with Tiffany's subtle clues. And his restraint early in the play sets the stage for a powerful transformation later in the one-act.
For better or worse, Chip Mac Enulty's direction keeps the audience locked in on the onstage action. Jerry keeps us in the moment at Tri-Lakes, foregoing the old absurdist notion of making meaning out of chaos and guiding us into a world where meaning is irrelevant. Throughout his career, Albee's intention has been to craft plays that will reach audiences unconsciously on a level that can't be analyzed and combed over for meaning. In the moments when the production seems to avoid sharpening its scrutiny and clarifying the questions, Mac Enulty and company steadfastly resist the temptation to answer, boldly siding with the playwright in trusting the obscured.
The Zoo Story is such a staple among aspiring thespians cutting their teeth in classes and workshops and studio space performances, that it takes a phenomenal production to reinvigorate the play and reestablish its vibrancy on our ever-evolving stages. Tri-Lakes opts instead for a time trip back to the days when audiences first discovered the play, offering a new opportunity to meet an old friend afresh.
-- Owen Perkins