A PSYCHOLOGICAL MUGGING Morra and Chace. [Photo by Erin X. Smithers]
Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, his first play besides a three-act sex farce he wrote at 12, is arguably the finest two-person play in American theater — unpretentiously insightful, quietly suspenseful, absorbing. Directed by Matt Fraza, Mixed Magic Theatre is presenting a definitive production (through May 19) that I'd bet my notepad and favorite ballpoint would earn enthusiastic reviews off-Broadway.
The set-up couldn't be more straightforward. Two strangers are having a conversation in New York's Central Park. Correspondingly, the set couldn't be more simple: a park bench in front of tall color photographs of its bucolic backdrop.
Peter (Rich Morra), who has a highly paid position in the publishing industry, is minding his own business, puffing his pipe, intently reading. Jerry (Tom Chace), wearing a denim jacket, paces back and forth, whistling "Blue Skies" to get the man's attention. "I've been to the zoo," he repeats in his one-sided banter, until Peter finally gives up and closes his book.
Albee wrote The Zoo Story in 1958, and it became an emblem of ennui in the existential '60s. In 2007, the playwright wrote a prequel that has usually been performed, upon his insistence, as the opening act of a double bill. Homelife is about Peter's relationship with his wife and ends with his going to the park with a book. It would have been interesting to have had that background understanding of Peter in this Mixed Magic production, but it wasn't necessary.
Without that particular introduction, Morra makes his character an Everyman we can relate to, just minding his own business as he is intruded upon by life. The ordinariness of the situation — who hasn't been pestered for conversation while reading on a bus or plane? — eases us into Peter's point of view. The play lasts only about 55 minutes, which seem to go by in much less time, like the recollection of a mugging.
Which is not to say that Jerry is violent. No, what we experience is more of a psychological mugging. Just as the gun-wielding ones often begin with something as casual as a "got a light?," that's pretty much how Jerry begins. He says that he usually doesn't talk to people except to say things like "give me a beer," or "where's the john?" or "keep your hands to yourself, buddy." (Notice how cleverly Albee informs us that this is not a gay pick-up?) But Jerry says that once in a while he takes a stab at conversation. He's evidently not well-practiced, because after unrelentingly asking Peter about his family and home life, Peter protests that a conversation is not a series of questions.
In the tradition that all happy families are the same for the same reasons and all unhappy families are different, we come to understand more about Jerry because there is more of interest to know. "I bet you got TV" is an early line, establishing that he was inadequately educated, at least in grammar, and perhaps also that he's poor. (He also reveals that he lives in "a laughably small room.") He comes up with an occasional insight, as when he says that as a kid he used pornographic playing cards as a substitute for experience but that adults use experience as a substitute for fantasies.