By Pat Launer
By any definition, Edward Albee’s first play is chilling.
In “The Zoo Story” (written by Albee in three weeks in 1958, just shy of his 30th birthday), the grand master of irony and cynicism is playing with the audience’s sense of civility, just as the scruffy, bullying vagrant, Jerry (Francis Gercke), is trying to unsettle and unnerve cultivated, complacent Peter (Phil Johnson).
It all takes place on a bench in Central Park. Peter, a married, upper middle-class man with a good job and a family (a wife, two daughters, two cats and two parakeets), is spending a sunny Sunday afternoon, as he so often does, alone (escaping the hubbub and doldrums of his life), peacefully reading a book.
Along comes Jerry — and a nerve-jangling havoc ensues. Both lives are penetratingly examined and turned inside-out.
Jerry begins a conversation — more like an interrogation/nonstop monologue — by announcing, “I’ve just been to the zoo.” Peter doesn’t even realize the comment is addressed to him.
Over the course of the increasingly intense, harrowing, suspenseful 55 minutes, we learn that both are loners of a sort — one craving understanding and interaction, the other wanting some private, quiet time.
Peter gets drawn, sucked, dragged into Jerry’s world — a low-end, boardinghouse/tenement itinerant existence, filled with a snarling dog, a “disgusting” lusty landlady, a brow-tweezing drag queen — and said trip to the Central Park Zoo.
Jerry keeps promising to tell what happened at the zoo, but he withholds the information till the alarming end.
The zoo is a metaphor for the behind-bars, caged-in reality of all humans, and the animal in all of us, lying just beneath the surface, but easily teased out at the slightest threat or provocation — although some of us, like Peter, seem to live a life of implacable isolation, confined to our own little world.
But whether he responds with condescension, patience or noblesse oblige, exactly how much is a man like Peter supposed to endure the aggression of a man like Jerry? What would you do in his position?
Jerry, the ultimate outsider, has the upper hand here: he taunts, he teases, he baits, he mercilessly tickles, he even attacks Peter’s manhood: he smokes a pipe, instead of cigarettes; he’s unable to produce a son; he’s henpecked.
The confrontation escalates on multiple levels. but all the while he’s maintaining a position of dominance. Peter, carefully controlled and self-satisfied at the outset, devolves, just as Jerry predicted, into a raging animal.
In this biting confrontation, Albee underscores the meaninglessness of life, one of the core tenets of Absurdist philosophy/Theatre of the Absurd.
Despite being one of the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner’s best-known works, the play is not frequently produced. San Diego Actors Theatre mounted a delectable, though short-lived, production last fall — in an actual park, which raised the dramatic stakes even higher, as passersby sauntered over to see what was going on.
Sometimes, in this fierce, piercing interaction, our own discomfort — like Peter’s — might make us want to saunter off, too, not to subject ourselves to the inevitable disaster to come.
But Peter stays, and we stay, and things do take that inexorable downward plunge.
Every time I see and analyze the play, I get new insights into its depth, complexity and taut construction.
It’s possible to view this as a parable, with Jerry as martyr (a man in his early 30s, stand-in for Jesus), and Peter as a disciple (of sorts), a man depicted in the New Testament as gentle but firm, loyal, but also rash and hasty, irritable and capable of great anger. Peter rebuked Jesus, and was rebuked by him.
“I came unto you,” Jerry says near the end of the play, in definitively Biblical language for a modern city-dweller. “And you comforted me.” Both men repeatedly invoke God at the end, whether literally or ironically (each one’s final words are “Oh my God”). But there’s little comfort here for anyone — character or observer.
Some have called the piece a modern morality play, about human isolation.
Surely, there is a great deal about loneliness, and the difficulty of truly communicating or connecting. Jerry keeps trying — and failing. Peter is his last hope.
Jerry and Peter: one, relentless; the other reluctant, then resistant, finally reduced to a primal scream.
They’re never in balance, partly because of their vast educational, occupational, marital, age and socio-economic divide — a chasm too deep and wide to bridge.
The timeliness is unmistakable, in these days of massive monetary inequality, coupled with fear and avoidance of those who are “different” in any way.
With skillful performers and a dexterous director (Rosina Reynolds), the Backyard production (on Diversionary Theatre’s mainstage) is superb.
Gercke’s Jerry, seething with anger and resentment at the world, vibrates with vehemence and relentlessness. His eyes are piercing, menacing.
Johnson’s Peter shows avoidance, disdain and ultimately, terror. An expansive array of emotions plays across Johnson’s malleable face (he barely gets a word in). As the tension mounts, he regresses to infantile territoriality.
But when it comes to endurance and physicality, this is not an even playing field. It’s a rabid game of cat-and-mouse, predator and prey, a battle — to the death — for power and control.
The ending is shocking. And with this level of expertise, intensity and ferocity, it’s sure to leave you puzzling, delving, pondering — and maybe even a little shell-shocked.
- The Backyard Renaissance production of “The Zoo Story” runs through July 29 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard in University Heights
- Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Special Industry Night Performance on Monday, July 23, at 7 p.m.
- Tickets ($18-$35) are available at 619-435-4856 or online at backyardrenaissance.com
- Running time: 55 min.
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.
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