“Zoo Story” fascinating study of post-war America

Tania Jachens

How would you react if a complete stranger walked up to you while you were sitting alone reading and attempted to strike up a conversation? Would you ignore him or answer his prodding questions? Ask him to leave you alone or put down the book you are reading and chat? Offer him whatever you have in your wallet or offer him a seat on your bench?

This is the exact predicament facing Peter, one half of the Vasey Theatre production of “The Zoo Story,” after a man clad in all in black approaches him while he is relaxing in Central Park on a Sunday afternoon. Who would have guessed that an innocent encounter that starts with the phrase, “I’ve been to the zoo,” could so rapidly spiral out of control?

Presented in the year of its 50th birthday, “The Zoo Story” is a two-man show (plus a dog), which takes place in post-WWII America, a time of great tension due to the growing chasm between the social classes.

A booming economy yielded the growing problem of an image-obsessed, materialistic, consumer culture, whose main focus was the preservation of its own wealth and status. This produced a counter-culture in the form of the Beat Generation, also known as the “beatniks.” The Beats rejected mainstream American values and offered a way of self-expression through unconventional means of spiritual and sexual self-awareness.

Playwright Edward Albee, a member of this generation of disillusioned authors, showcases the tension between the two cultures through the na’ve middle-class contentment of Peter and the curious cynicism of Jerry, the lonely stranger.

Both main characters are powerfully portrayed by two veterans of Vasey’s stage. Will Erwin, who plays Peter, gracefully evolves from a complacent observer to an enraged combatant, while Chris Serpentine moves with ease through Jerry’s unpredictable emotions and convincingly portrays a thoroughly disturbed individual.

Though his stage time is unfortunately limited, Baxter, a beautiful golden labrador, manages to remember his lines and cues with the effortlessness of a pro. As expected, Vasey Theatre took no shortcuts in creating its set, which looks so much like Central Park that they might have just imported a chunk of it all the way to Pennsylvania.

Realistic looking trees loom over the audience, planted in a foot of dirt and grass, as the two actors sit on their respective wooden benches. Leaves occasionally flutter to the ground, birds chirp and various people pass by in the background, giving the audience the sensation of sitting in the park with the actors.

Even though this play is a rather short one act, it manages to deal with several serious issues, such as human isolation, loneliness, disparities between social classes and the danger of going with the status quo. While many of these issues are still relevant in today’s society, in the end, go see the show in order to find out the shocking ending to Jerry’s story about the zoo.