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Theater Review: “The Zoo Story"

“The Zoo Story” plays through July 29, 2018 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, University Heights
Photo credit:
Phil Johnson and Fran Gercke; Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company

Some days you just want to sit on a park bench and be alone with your thoughts. But playwright Edward Albee, some 60 years ago, saw much more sinister, even life-changing possibilities in that simple fact.

Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company presents Edward Albee’s first play, “The Zoo Story,” through July 29 at Diversionary Theatre. Rosina Reynolds directs.

A nicely dressed businessman named Peter (Phil Johnson) sits on a Central Park bench close to the zoo, reading the newspaper. He regards this as his bench, and seems perfectly happy sitting alone and reading.

Then Jerry (Francis Gercke), a younger, scruffy-looking man sits on the next bench and offers a few conversational gambits that are ignored. When Jerry moves to Peter’s bench and asks, “Do you mind if we talk?” it’s an extremely uncomfortable situation for Peter, who clearly wants to be left alone.

But Jerry definitely wants to talk, and these two mismatched humans will spend the next 55 minutes not communicating but talking at each other. Or rather, Jerry will talk while Peter tries to find a graceful way to get this man off “his” bench.

This is theatre of the absurd. Both men are victims of isolation and alienation; each is quick to judge the other. Overwhelming sadness can almost be viscerally felt by observers. This encounter will change their lives.

“The Zoo Story” requires virtuosic acting from both actors. Gercke’s Jerry has most of the lines and the physical moves. He circles, stalks, stares, making Johnson’s Peter feel more and more like a caged animal.

But Peter is perhaps the more difficult part: he must emote more with words and expressions than actions. Johnson and Gercke accomplish a frightening pas de deux here that makes even the audience so uneasy that it’s difficult to decide whom to watch.

Albee couldn’t get an American company to perform “The Zoo Story,” so it opened in Berlin in 1959. But it has since become a staple of American theater. This fine production will show you why.

The details

“The Zoo Story” plays through July 29, 2018 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, University Heights

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm