I once took a college communications class in which our incredibly unhinged professor assigned us social experiments to perform off campus.
In most of my team’s experiment designs, you could find me panhandling at the mall on Saturdays, adjusting variables for styles of dress, words I used, eye contact, etc. My coward of a study partner observed and giggled from 10 feet away. Only one bad sport ever called the mall cops on us.
The social experiments in “The Zoo Story” remind me a lot of those misspent Saturdays, except the one-act play’s humor is dark and incidental. Its author, Edward Albee, is the same writer who penned the drama, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” Any laughs from the audience spring more from discomfort, or even from the gallows where you will find me inelegantly holding back a snort—a.k.a. my goofy laugh.
The play opens with Peter [Jeff Luttermoser] reading on a bench in Central Park. Soft jazz is piping in over the speakers, with the setting portraying the leisure of an idyllic Sunday afternoon. We watch him read a book for all of 20 seconds before Jerry [David Ramon Zayas] initiates an uninvited conversation about going to the zoo. It doesn’t take long for the conversation to become uncomfortable for Peter, with Jerry delving into inappropriately personal questions and judgments about Peter.
Then Jerry opens his own book of life, socially manipulating Peter into listening to his cringe-y stories. Among the many things we learn about Jerry: he has a gin-soaked landlady who physically corners him and makes him listen to her ramblings, he brags about a years-old fling, he tried to poison his landlady’s dog, and he has empty picture frames in his small room that is divided from another small room with beaver-board.
Zayas’ delivery of multiple monologues and his use of space impressively captures the spirit of a lunatic in the park out to assert his animal dominance, to make himself superior in the world by making someone else inferior. His performance made my inner monologue mentally dial up the mall cop—it was that disturbing.
So what makes Peter sit and listen when he should grab his book off the bench and run? His body language clearly has him looking for a socially acceptable exit, but he doesn’t act on it. Does he stay seated on the bench because he, like most of us, was raised to be polite? Is it because he thought maybe Jerry was lonely? Is it because one of the social obligations that accompany a civilized society calls for sometimes listening to unsettling tangents? (Did you know using the word “because” is a subtle form of manipulation? Now you know.)
Whatever Peter’s initial reasons are for staying, his motivations shift when mental manipulation turns into a spatial power play. Luttermoser expertly pushes and pulls his character’s own quest for physical and territorial dominance back and forth between fight and flight.
With the play being set in 1959, Gamut Theatre’s Director Clark Nicholson made sure to play up the fact that “Jerry was an extremely closeted man, which drives him to act out violently.”
Nicholson cautioned against bringing your children to see this play.
“The title of ‘The Zoo Story’ might sound like it’s in line with our children’s plays,” he said. “But it’s not.”
But the show is like family in a different sort of way. As part of the troupe’s pledge to safety, the two-man cast is a couple—undoubtedly the source of their marvelous chemistry. Their dog even came to watch the dress rehearsal, although I hope someone covered the pup’s ears during Jerry’s dog-poisoning story.
“The Zoo Story” runs through Oct. 25 at Gamut Theatre. Tickets are available for purchase through Gamut Theatre’s website at https://www.gamuttheatre.org/tickets. Tickets must be reserved online in advance, and will not be available at the door.
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