Gwydion Theatre’s production of “The Zoo Story” starts on a strong note—Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” with its insistent, almost snarling refrain of “But something is happening, and you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?”—and just keeps getting stronger, more tangled, more provocative.
Edward Albee’s breakthrough play, which premiered in Berlin in 1959, has been a staple of the repertory ever since. But after sixty-plus years and countless revivals, this two-handed one-acter retains its sting, usefully reminding us that relevance is not a matter of when a work of art was written, but rather what it has to say and how well it says it.
Gwydion Theatre, a company making its local debut, has chosen its first Chicago play well and executed it even better. Under the direction of Morgan Wilson, the production brings out Albee’s debt to Beckett and the other absurdist playwrights of the era, without neglecting the deadly serious and very real social and psychological conflicts that undergird this mid-century American classic.
Outwardly simple but structurally complex, “Zoo Story” consists of a set of nested narratives, the last of which turns out to be the action that we’ve been watching. Telling these stories is Jerry (Grayson Kennedy)–described as late-thirties in the script but played younger here–a struggling, socially awkward New Yorker who seems part beatnik, part performance artist and possibly part mental patient. His semi-willing audience is Peter (Bob Webb), a publishing exec and family man with a nice wife and a nice apartment in a nice Manhattan neighborhood, who is seated on a bench in Central Park as the play opens. The play portrays the meeting not just of two men—the settled and secure Peter and the “permanent transient” Jerry, whose alienation is on a Dostoevskyan scale—but of two worlds not meant to intersect.
Jerry’s air of jittery oddness puts Peter on edge, but he gets caught up, Arabian Nights-style, in Jerry’s endless, ramified tales, especially the promised but ever-deferred Zoo Story. Most compelling is Jerry’s story of his relationship to his landlady’s ulcerated, underfed and abused dog, who attacks him every time he enters his wretched boarding house. First, Jerry tries to buy off the brute with hamburger; when that doesn’t work, it’s time for Plan B, poison. “I tried to love and tried to kill—both unsuccessfully,” says Jerry. An ominous line, foreshadowing the intensifying conflict and violent climax to come.
Director Wilson elicits nicely contrasting performances from Webb’s conventional Peter and Kennedy’s edgy, needling Jerry. Jerry is the richer part, with the character’s impassioned monologues and sharp, bitter insights about the world as seen from the bottom, with none of the cushioning of middle-class life. His climactic, semi-coherent ranting soliloquy comes off as a blend of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Lucky’s lengthy monologue from “Waiting for Godot.” Kennedy shows himself a thespian of real promise, nailing a part that could easily slide into self-indulgent hysteria and/or pathos. He’s direct and truthful in his acting, revealing the suffering and deprivation that have made Jerry what he is, as well as the intelligence and sensitivity of a creative if tormented soul whose canvas is his own vulnerable self.
Webb in the meantime captures Peter’s befuddled passivity, his aspiration to a kind of vague, risk-free decency, which under stress shifts toward macho belligerence. Seeking to get a rise out of the placid Peter, Jerry finally displays the hipster’s contempt for square society and its trite, deadened response to things: “Stupid! Don’t you have any idea, not even the slightest, what other people need?”
This well-paced, hour-long dramatic crescendo of a show is staged with an absolute simplicity: set and sound design comprise a bench, a half-painted greenish board in the background and the occasional twittering of birds. The production focuses attention where it belongs, on the actors, as they explore the paradoxical link between aggression and intimacy in a culture built around the supremacy of the self.
In some ways, “Zoo Story” is very much a work of the existentialist 1950s, with its emphasis on authenticity and engagement. At the same time, it seems an allegory of the playwright’s own situation, as he seeks to achieve artistic ends within a showbiz context. Jerry’s increasingly desperate effort to get through to the obtuse Peter parallels Albee’s attempt to communicate to a playgoing public perceived by him as looking for a good, reassuring story rather than a jolting, meaningful theatrical experience.
With this production, the small, low-profile Gwydion Theatre Company—which relocated this year from the West Coast to Chicago and is putting down roots here—demonstrates that it’s willing and able to mount thoughtful, ambitious drama that puts larger theaters to shame. No doubt about it, this is a company to watch.
“The Zoo Story” is on stage at Gwydion Theatre Company at the Greenhouse, 2257 North Lincoln, through October 15. Tickets, $22, are available at (773)404-7336 or gwydiontheatrecompany.org.