RANTING IN A PARK A dubious tale of the zoo.
Theatergoers who have been hankering for a shot of satire are in luck this week: The University of Southern Maine is serving up the biting spirits of playwright Edward Albee, and they're making it a double, with his one-act plays The Zoo Story and The American Dream. William Steele directs USM students in a very fine double bill, at the Portland Stage Studio Theater.
We start in a quiet corner of Central Park, where a comfortable man in a suit, Peter (Dalton Kimball), has his reading interrupted by the quietly ominous intrusion of scruffy Jerry (Nathan Lapointe). Jerry has been to the zoo and is here to discuss it, in this vertiginous inquiry into the nature of the human animal.
Lapointe wisely starts Jerry low, giving the character plenty of room to grow in fervor and menace, and he is judicious with the outbursts he hits hard. If anything, he underplays the danger rippling just barely beneath Jerry's careening rhetoric (I'd actually like to see a little more swerve here and there in his slow crescendo, to keep us constantly renegotiating our sense of balance); his measured performance allows a slow, deep unfolding of his character's agony. As his reluctant confidant and nemesis, Peter, Kimball has soft pink skin and pinker lips, and this vulnerable face expresses a remarkable range of reactions to Jerry: he twitches, clenches, blinks nervously, then lets his jaw go slack, in thrall to Jerry despite himself. During the long stretches of Jerry's monologue, there is always something to watch in Kimball's physicality, always something turning, and it's a subtle but masterful acting triumph.
The second act's The American Dream, a outrageous, irreverent allegory, keeps us in New York but moves us to the apartment of meek, cardiganed Daddy (Kirk Boettcher) and his spiteful, self-absorbed wife Mommy (S. Anna Irving) with upswept blond hair and a fuck-me-red Jackie-O dress (Joan Larkins Mather's excellent costume design). In the heartless inanities of Mommy and Daddy's conversation, and their infantilizing hostility toward Grandma (the out-of-this-world Madelyn James), Albee concocts a colorful, absurd, and hilarious horror story about America's desires, and about its relationship with its elders and history.
Under Steele's direction, the ensemble is perfectly cast, the pacing is frisky and sure, and the tone — of bright nursery-rhyme obscenity — is exceptionally wrought. Everything that comes out of Irving's crimson lips is twisted with saccharine viciousness, and as her hangdog husband, Boettcher has the posture of a turtle and a doughy, self-pitying frown.
As the doe-eyed, pie-mouthed young thing called Mrs. Barker — the reason for whose visit only Grandma can clearly recall — Kimberly Stacey is exquisitely vapid; and Dalton Kimball, back from Act One but now with feathered hair and a red muscle shirt, is a smooth hoot as the helplessly narcissistic title character.
The entire cast is excellent, but the real scene-stealer is James's incredible Grandma, with her brisk, smart-ass bustling about, her wry eye-rolling, and her gummy yet sharp-tongued falsetto. Her comic timing is impeccable, and perhaps her most impressive achievement is that her Grandma is not just side-splitting, but also quietly affecting. It is a superb, completely transporting performance.