The Zoo Story | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company

at Angel Island

It doesn't matter that Edward Albee wrote it 33 years ago, The Zoo Story plays like an angry indictment of the shallow, selfish Reagan-Bush regime. Depicting a too-close encounter with a Gotham crazy, the play focuses on the human zoo in Central Park.

Seemingly standing in for the lucky few who prospered in the 80s, Peter is an editor at a small publishing house who has all the right toys as well as two little girls, an adoring wife, and the leisure to view Central Park as an escape rather than an asylum.

Jerry is Peter's social opposite, a "permanent transient." When the two meet on a park bench he starts grilling Peter about his life-style, then pours out his own grungy tale--including inventories of his dreary flophouse room, his down-and-out neighbors, his sex life (briefly gay, now he never sleeps with the same woman twice), his dead relatives, his hatred for the ugly landlady who he imagines lusts after him, and his even greater loathing for her dog.

The dog triggers an elaborate speech: Jerry tells how he tried to kill the dog with kindness, then with rat poison, and that they finally reached a kind of live-and-let-live mutual dread. Clearly it's the same standoff Jerry has reached with the world at large.

Despite Peter's guilty pity for Jerry (or because of it), he's fascinated by Jerry's frantic confessional, sucked into it against his will. Eventually turning sinister and territorial, Jerry sets up a battle for the bench they're sitting on and it ends in violence. "Fight for your wife, you pathetic little vegetable!"

Like many of today's walking wounded, Jerry is desperate to connect, to get some attention. Place the play in 1992 and Jerry suggests a new curse of the starving class. Imagine if all the homeless and the near-homeless, the PWAs dying for lack of a cure, the sick who can't afford hospitals--all the subcitizens created over the last 12 years--were to converge on Houston.

Albee saw it all happening in the Eisenhower era.

Politics aside, The Zoo Story works because the encounter is as specific as it is deadly. The two characters connect only in the most superficial way until the sensational fatal conclusion, following a remorseless logic, fuses them with a vengeance. There's not, the play implies, any other way left for us to connect anymore.

Jim Vlaming's staging for Mary-Arrchie Theatre is true to Albee's absorbing story-telling but misses the tension, both in the anecdotes that build ominously from pathos to hysteria and in Peter's mounting defensiveness before this dangerous, talky bum.

Eric Young plays Peter with a tough blend of curiosity, wariness, and condescension. But he doesn't get much to react to or much reason to get involved with Bob Rice's rather matter-of-fact Jerry.

Though Rice's Jerry is more homespun and forthright than usual (a potentially valuable approach), when the play demands an escalation from eccentricity to psychosis he just raises his voice. By the vicious end Rice hasn't reached the energy level that can explain the detonation.

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