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The Zoo Story

Edge Theatre mounts Edward Albee's haunting one-act play.

Jim Tommaney's Edge Theatre has given us the alpha and omega of Edward Albee (Tommaney also covers theater for the Houston Press). In February, the company presented Albee's newest work, the intriguing Me, Myself and I, and its current production is Albee's oldest, the provocative, haunting one-act The Zoo Story from 1959. His distinctive, caustic voice is in delirious bloom, all hot house flower with nitrous perfume. One sniff and you reel.

What a fine thing to watch the exceptional Travis Ammons here. If you want crazy and dangerous, with sly, sexy undertones, there's no one better. He exudes edge. With that luxurious mane of Renaissance hair, his stage presence is undeniable. He takes the light, as veteran cameramen used to say about Hollywood film stars. In fact, he eats it up. Our eyes never leave him, because you don't know what he might do. In one line, he can purr, whirl, roar and cajole with equal facility. At the peak of his game, he makes the perfect Jerry.

Nondescript, upper-middle-class Peter (Andrew Adams) is sitting on his favorite park bench reading when wild-eyed, definitely lower-class Jerry intrudes and wheedles himself into the conversation. Pacing back and forth, a living neurosis of tics and exposed nerves, Jerry mesmerizes defenseless Peter with stories about his sad, lonely life. In epic, operatic-like monologues, Jerry lays out his shabby existence. All of us are caged animals, he implies with Albee-esque flourish, behind bars, unable to reach out; when we do, we find our hand bitten.

Travis Ammons as Jerry and Andrew Adams as Peter in Edward Albee's classic The Zoo Story.
Travis Ammons as Jerry and Andrew Adams as Peter in Edward Albee's classic The Zoo Story.

Details

Zoo Story

Through July 15. Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch, 832-894-1843. $10-$20.

Charley's Aunt

Through August 26. A.D. Players, 2710 Alabama, 713-526-2721. $34-$43.

Pudding Peter remains out of Jerry's touch. In desperation or as a calculated move (Albee leaves that vague), Jerry forces Peter to fight for the bench, saying, "Fight for your manhood, you pathetic little vegetable." He spits in Peter's face and pulls out a knife. The play ends in a flash of redemptive violence, as Peter realizes he's as much of an animal as any in the nearby zoo.

Ammons is manic but precise, constantly prowling, his hands shooting out, rubbing the back of his neck, playing with that hair. His voice is just as varied: a whisper, a shout, a caress. During Jerry's non-stop assault on Peter's sensibilities, he leans sensuously over the bench, and we don't know whether he's going to kiss Peter or bite him.

Albee lards his play with opaque variations on the theme of love and violence. Adams more than holds his own against the acid attack that Ammons so thoroughly delivers. Peter is the ultimate straight man for Jerry's subversive antics, and Adams must react silently through those lengthy monologues. It's the ultimate challenge for an actor, and Adams triumphs gloriously. When his reserve finally boils over, it's like Vesuvius. The two actors play against – and with – each other like fine jazz musicians, their riffs filled with virtuosity and an air of dangerous improvisation.

An Endearing Man in a Dress

Brandon Thomas's classic 1892 Victorian farce, Charley's Aunt, is one of theater's first international hits, and it positively sparkles in the spit-shine given to it by A.D. Players. Who knew that a guy in a dress could be so endearing?

As fresh as the very best of Neil Simon, the Marx Brothers, and Kaufman and Hart, this mother of all farces continues to beguile, and it only gets better with age, with a crazy quilt of misunderstandings, hidden revelations, love gone wrong, and youth trying to pull the wool – if not the whole sheep – over their elders' eyes.

Two young swains, Jack and Charley (Blake Weir and Marty Blair), wish to woo their girlfriends (Katharine Hatcher and Leslie Reese) without interference, so they dress up a classmate (Kevin Dean) to pretend to be Charley's rich aunt come for a visit. Needless to say, old roués (Ric Hodgin and Chip Simmons) woo the masquerader, since they see dollar signs, not the 5 o'clock shadow. Naturally, the real aunt arrives (Patty Tuel Bailey in sumptuous period finery by Donna Southern Schmidt) accompanied by her ward (Leslie Lenert), quickly sizes up the situation and pretends to be someone else. Meanwhile, Jack's overworked droll butler Brassett (Linford Herschberger), who talks to the audience in humorous asides, barely tolerates the young men's improbable scheme.

A wind-up, gizmo-like toy, this is a one-joke comedy, with endless variations on that joke. Thomas's genius is making each variation funnier than the one before. Precisely crafted, the play builds with timed entrances and exits plotted to the microsecond. Under the knowing direction of Jennifer Dean, the actors turn the timetable into side-splitting hilarity. Each member of the ensemble plays this old chestnut with genuine feeling and dash. Hitching up his voluminous skirts and brushing aside his lace head cap as if bothered by a swarm of pesky mosquitoes, Dean skitters around the piano on all fours and later peers from behind the potted palm as he hides from the lemon-puckered Simmons chasing him.

Of course it's improbable and silly, that's the special charm. And we suspend our disbelief, too, which makes the whole masquerade all the more fun. The production glides effortlessly and is packed with laughs. Brandon Thomas's delight of a play whirls and spins with giddy abandon. It's one toy we never tire of.

 
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