It's All Happening at the Zoo

Speak the Speech Theater Company offers a play doubleheader

Theaters in our fair city may not be as plentiful as gas stations, but you never have to risk running out of opportunities to keep your playbill collection replenished.

A fairly new kid on the block is Speak the Speech Theater Company, a not entirely obscure name for a group of thespians, if you know a bit of The Bard's banter. The reference comes from Hamlet's admonition to the acting group he has gathered to help suggest in a none too oblique way the idea that there was indeed something rotten in Denmark, involving in particular his screwed up family.

Last year was the inaugural year of the group, founded by Dan Reichel, who has suitably impressive credentials, and who directed a couple of respectably staged shows last year. This year, the group begins its season with a couple of one-act plays, which Reichel links by adding a bit of a subtitle: "centering on the theme to understand and possibly be understood." It's an interesting pairing featuring "The Zoo Story," Edward Albee's first play, and a play by a television sitcom writer, "Pillow Talk."

"Zoo Story" carries the heft here. Those who have been around the theater world have probably been exposed to the short play. It used to be a staple—perhaps still is—especially for student presentations or workshops, because it gives them a lot to work with. When it was written in 1958, it was more than a bit controversial, because of its style and content, which is simple but intense. Although it has many layers and themes, if indeed theater does hold a mirror to nature, to summon the Bard again, the reflection of Albee's world is harsh and disturbing. (Interesting footnote: Albee wrote a prequel 50 years later called "Homelife." which he combined with "The Zoo Story" in a two act play called "Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo." He no longer allows professional productions of "The Zoo Story" unless it is presented as the second act of the reworked play.)

The premise is simple. A man in a suit is sitting on a park bench in a rather private area of Central Park, reading, taking in a pleasant Sunday afternoon. Another man, dressed simply, approaches him and attempts to engage him in conversation. The first man, reacts politely, but gives no indication he is interested in speaking with the stranger. But the stranger is persistent. His demeanor is odd and he goes into great detail about where he lives, about his unhappy relationship with a dog in his run-down boarding house, about the other tenants. He claims he has come from a visit to the zoo and wants to share what happened there. Jerry (Ken Beider) is obviously intent on stepping through socially polite boundaries. There is a bit of menace about him, perhaps a bit of madness, but mostly there is an aim to engage Peter (Anthony Auriemma.) What evolves is an unsettling confrontation between the two with a surprising and disturbing end.

The play holds up well these many years later, and the players here do a good job of finding its heart. In particular, Bieder gives us a believable, unsettling and yet sympathetic Jerry. Auriemma is less successful finding a more realistically grounded Peter. He gives us more a Peter who acts "as if," working on the surface of the character, rather than mining the real substance of this man. Still, the power of Albee's play lands a disturbing blow.

The second playlet of the evening, "Pillow Talk," by Peter Tolan, is a light-hearted story of two young men, Aaron (David Wang) and Doug (Eric Everts,) on a cross country trip. They stop for the night at Aaron's Grandma's house in a trailer park in Prescott, Arizona. The fun begins when Doug discovers that he and Aaron will be sharing a bed. It's a nifty little piece, and the two gents deliver some genuine laughs.

Speak the Speech has teamed with the Community Players, an amateur group which has been around for years, to renovate a building on North Oracle into a fully functioning little theater.

Although the STS shows I have seen have been uneven in quality, there's evidence that the group could be a welcome addition to our already rich theater landscape.

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