‘Peter’ sits alone on a bench in Central Park reading, until he is interrupted by ‘Jerry’. ‘Jerry’ has just been to the zoo and wants to tell him about it. In fact, ‘Jerry’ just wants to talk. All he needs is for someone to listen. Over the course of their conversation ‘Jerry’ begins to fall apart, in the process pulling Peter’s comfortable middle-class existence down with him. We are firmly established in Edward Albee territory.
Albee is well served by the Cambridge dramatic world; recent years have seen strong productions of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Goat (or Who is Sylvia?), A Delicate Balance, and The American Dream. James Banton’s production of The Zoo Story continues this trend. Albee’s first performed play, The Zoo Story marks the first appearance of themes that surface throughout his work, of loneliness, dehumanization, and that characteristically 1950s’ concern; the tension between individuality and conformity.
As a two-hander, The Zoo Story stands or falls on the performances of its two actors, and fortunately Adam Drew (‘Peter’) and Pablo Navarro MacLochlainn (‘Jerry’) excel, both individually and as a double-act. Navarro MacLochlainn in particular looks as though he could have walked straight off the page, a physically perfect match for Albee’s stage directions. His performance is pitch perfect, flitting between intensity and levity in a second, and creating the impression of a man teetering on the edge of sanity. Moreover he manages to keep the lid on a character that could easily have spilt over the top. His energy is perfectly complemented by the restrained Drew, who manages to do a great deal of work with few words andvery little movement, his face catching every twist in ‘Jerry’s rant’.Crucially both convince with their accents, giving the play an authentic sense of location.
Banton’s production is stripped down to the most basic level, with only a pair of benches for set, and fortuitously complemented by the Fame flats depicting the New York skyline. Banton takes a chance with the lighting design, opting for subtle shifts reflecting changes in mood, rather than taking the easy (but perfectly defensible) route of a single simple naturalistic state. It is a gamble that pays off,effectively emphasising the hyper-real nature of Albee’s work. Indeed,this is hard production to find fault with; it may be simple rather than flashy, but it boasts excellent direction, and strong actors working with a great script, all of which adds up to a wonderful production of a modern American classic. Highly recommended.