Primal Zoo

The Now Theatre offers up a tragic Edward Albee tale of class warfare

The charisma of certain types of mad outsiders can be both frightening and somehow magnetic.

We're not talking about those merely annoying panhandlers in front of the Circle K, nor the truly dangerous sociopaths that lurk at society's edges. At issue today are those well-educated, usually hyperactive and not-unattractive charmers who range from a little unhinged to out-and-out antisocial. Some have slipped through the cracks of the treatment community; maybe they need a time out in an institution or they've simply gone off their meds.

They regale us with compulsively literate tales and complicated but entertaining thought patterns. They make sense, up to the point from which they leap off into fanciful nonsense. Sometimes they corner us in line at the post office, at the mall or at parties. Or maybe in Central Park, such as in Edward Albee's classic 1958 one-act play The Zoo Story.

The Now Theatre, a small local troupe, is presenting Albee's explosive two-person drama at the Cabaret Theatre at the Temple of Music. The show is sort of piggybacking on the Rogue Theatre's production of Orlando (see accompanying review), playing at 10 p.m. as part of the Rogue After Curfew series.

I thought I had never seen The Zoo Story before, but as soon as the two characters began their park-bench pas de deux in this production, I flashed on a raw-boned version, probably done in a small studio, during my college years. It's impossible to forget, once primed with Albee's distinct dialogue--a variation on urbane New Yorker, with a touch of street swagger--and the classic confrontation between representatives of the middle class establishment and those who just don't fit in.

A collegiate team has created this Zoo Story. Director Chelsea Bowdren is a junior in the University of Arizona's theater arts department, where she has appeared in lots of productions, and the two players are also upperclassmen in the same program. Nic Adams and John Shartzer also happen to be members of the chorus in Orlando. So they're doing double duty throughout both runs. Cheers for their fortitude.

Adams plays Peter, a middle-aged but still-innocent, middle-management executive in publishing. We know little about him except that he is married, has two daughters, two cats and two parakeets. He has retreated to a secluded bench in the park for a quiet afternoon of reading and pipe-smoking.

Upon him comes Jerry (Shartzer), that mad outsider, who has just come from a visit to the zoo--he tends to walk all over Manhattan, apparently. Despite implying to the contrary, Jerry has an agenda for the afternoon, and it isn't simply to hassle the square guy.

Adams' Peter seems to view the encounter as first a nuisance then an off-beat diversion. He's so naive that he literally has apple-red blushes of color in his cheeks. You want to like him, but you also despise his weakness.

From the instant we see Shartzer's Jerry, he makes us nervous and promises tumult. But we can't take our eyes from his enervated Adam's apple, bobbing with nervous gulps, and the slightly effeminate way he raises his hand to his mouth to almost bite his nails and, self-consciously, draws it away.

But you know something's really amiss when he says, ominously, "Sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly." Can tragedy be far off?

In the course of his tales about life in the margins, Jerry challenges Peter's suburban sensibilities, his sexuality and his position in modern society, but he also seduces him a little.

For a while, the thrust and parry finds them on even ground, or Peter would like to think so. Then some hurt feelings lead to brief teasing and a homoerotic bout of tickling. The tables are turning when this develops almost right away into a territorial battle for the bench, from which neither man will back down.

Production notes describe the play as "class warfare at its most personal and primal," which may not be an overstatement in some cases. This version feels as if it is holding back a bit in terms of the "primal." The physical confrontations feel tentative, even during the violent climax.

Still, both actors admirably capture their characters, seeming to really know them. They treat the piece as both a vintage portrait of urban wildlife and a challenging exercise. They illustrate well how benign situations can quickly be transformed into life-changing trauma.

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