Animal Sounds

There's not much reason for the two characters in The Zoo Story to talk to each other for nearly an hour when one of them behaves like a raving lunatic from the very start. Not even the saintliest among us would listen, calmly, to a complete stranger -- who looks and sounds like he's probably a mental-ward escapee -- as he periodically flails about, tells tales about drag queens and impersonates a hostile dog.

But that's mostly what happens in the Roundfish Theatre Company's production, which is currently playing at the LIDA Project Experimental Theatre. As directed by company founder Nolan Patterson, who plays one of the characters (he also designed the lighting and had a hand in fashioning the background music), the 55-minute production suffers from a serious reality imbalance, though the underlying issues do manage to come to the fore.

Jerry (Patterson), an average looking man dressed in casual clothes, approaches Peter (Stephen Tobias), a mild-mannered, middle-class man -- as normal looking as they get in New York City -- who is sitting on a bench, reading a book and smoking a pipe. Jerry gains Peter's attention by screaming at the top of his lungs. Then Jerry starts quizzing Peter about his personal life -- a blunt interrogation that, for some reason, Peter tolerates. Eventually, Jerry tells a long, involved tale about his encounter with a dog, which winds up being an allegory about human closeness: "If we can so misunderstand [basic feelings of affection]," he asks, "why then have we invented the word love in the first place?"

Edward Albee's pioneering one-act, which was originally produced in 1959 in tandem with fellow absurdist Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, works best when the two characters initially look and sound like a pair of fairly regular, quirky guys. If we're to buy into the play's universal message about human relationships, then we need to believe that these two men are like most people -- willing to take mild conversational risks with a total stranger and, if all goes reasonably well, to get to know him or her better. Then we're able to see how a normal relationship's power dynamics develop, spiral out of control and, in this case, ultimately mutate. Unfortunately, the performers distort the characters' traits from the get-go -- to the point that little of what they say or do rings true. As a result, the play sometimes feels more like a slasher movie than an emotionally rich drama.

There's no reason, for instance, why Peter would stay seated once Jerry screams at him at the beginning of the play; raising his voice is called for in the script, but Patterson's delivery is practically bloodcurdling. Anyone with half the brain Peter claims to have (something that's later backed up by Jerry's observation, "You're an educated man...") would immediately abandon his perch and head for the other side of the park. A few minutes later, Jerry tells Peter that the next day's newspapers will be awash with stories about his visit to the zoo and then proceeds to ask about Peter's family. But Tobias regards these verbal red flags, which the hyperactive Patterson raises to the highest psychological yardarm, as perfectly normal. For the most part, there's no sense of subtlety to Patterson's advances -- implied threats become blaring invasions, and longings that should slowly bubble up to the surface geyser forth instead. And Tobias never regards his counterpart's advances with enough suspicion. On top of all that, when Patterson launches into Jerry's famous (and lengthy) story about a dog who lives in his building, the stage lights suddenly flash and flicker, an odd special effect, inexplicably repeated elsewhere, that's far more distracting than mood enhancing.

What Patterson and Tobias eventually latch onto, especially when they settle into their roles a bit, is each character's near-primal territorialism. They also pay proper attention to the play's spiritual dimension without over-inflating it -- a tricky task given everything else that goes on near the end of the play. Problems aside, the production marks a welcome return for Roundfish, which disbanded a few years back when several of its members left town to pursue various career opportunities. If Patterson is able to hand off a few production chores next time around, the company will undoubtedly get a step or two closer to achieving its goal of producing low-cost, high-quality theater at the grass roots level -- territory that's always ready to be staked out.

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Jim Lillie