The Zoo Story from Edge Theatre: Pure, Electrifying Albee

The set-up:

We have to thank Jim Tommaney's Edge Theatre for giving us the alpha and omega of Edward Albee (Tommaney also covers theater for the Houston Press). Its former production in February was Albee's latest, Me, Myself and I, while Edge's current production is Albee's earliest, the provocative, haunting one-act The Zoo Story (1959). Albee's first produced play, with its world premiere in Germany since American producers saw it as radioactive, is pure Albee. His distinctive, caustic voice is already in delirious bloom, all hot house flower with nitrous perfume. One sniff and you're reeling. There's no denying the talent on display -- in its pyrotechnical way, it proclaimed a new major force in American theater. Albee didn't disappoint, becoming the dean of living American playwrights. Zoo Story was just the beginning.

The execution:

What a fine thing to see the exceptional Travis Ammons back on stage. He's been missing far too long since his quirky turn as Mozart in Amadeus at Country Playhouse. (Years ago, Ammons headed the short-lived Ashland Street Theatre, at that time the only place I always looked forward to going to. In a drab little space up near 26th Street, not much bigger than a shoebox, he introduced Houston audiences to the weird and wonderful world of Nicky Silver and Harry Kondoleon. The productions weren't always stellar, but their heart was gold, and you always left the theater a little bit changed.)

If you want crazy and dangerous, with sly undertones of sexiness, there's no one better than Ammons. He exudes edge. Prickly and spry, he gives off sparks. Don't get too close, you'll be singed. A singular actor, he finds novel, yet true, ways to etch his character. Wiry and angular, with that luxurious mane of Renaissance hair, his stage presence is undeniable. He takes the light, as old cameramen used to say about Hollywood silent 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. It's a pleasure to watch him at the peak of his game. He makes the perfect Jerry.

Non-descript, upper-middle-class Peter (Andrew Adams) sits on his favorite park bench reading his book when wild-eyed, definitely lower-class Jerry intrudes and wheedles himself into 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 monologues -- arias, actually -- Jerry lays out his pitiful existence in the shabby rooming house filled with other loners and losers. All of us are caged animals, he implies with Albee-esque flourish, behind bars, unable to reach out; but when we do, we find our hand bitten.

Jerry attempts to reach out to Peter for acceptance, for validation, for anything, but pudding Peter, emasculated Peter, remains out of reach, out of touch. In desperation, or calculated move -- Albee leaves that open -- Jerry forces Peter to fight for the bench. "You fight, you miserable bastard; fight for that bench; fight for your parakeets; fight for your cats, fight for your two daughters, fight for your wife; fight for your manhood, you pathetic little vegetable." He spits in Peter's face and pulls out a knife. In a shockingly melodramatic moment that ends the play in a flash of terrible violence, Peter realizes he's as much of an animal as any in the nearby zoo. He's now part of the human condition, whether he wants to be or not.

In the electric role of Jerry, Ammons galvanizes the stage. Manic but precise, he's never still, his hands constantly shooting out or rubbing the back of his neck or 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 really know if he's going to kiss Peter or bite him. An Albee specialty is this gender-in-flux tinge that keeps us spinning.

In Albee's parable of life on earth, Jerry is avenging angel and vengeful devil. Albee lards his play (his plays) with many themes and variations -- social, political, love vs. violence, love = violence. This opaqueness is part of Albee's appeal and, dare I say, charm. Ammons is weird, unique, and hypnotizing as baiting, sad-sack Jerry. He keeps us spinning, too. The role is so juicy, Albee, in 2008, added another one-acter, Homelife, as a prequel to round out Peter's rather sketchy role in Story.

Adams, who played dull-blade Salieri to Ammons's rapier Mozart, holds his own against the showstopping attack that Albee so lovingly writes and Ammons so thoroughly delivers. Peter's the ultimate straight man for Jerry's subversive antics, and for most of the play Peter, always sitting on the bench, must react silently through those lengthy monologues. It's the ultimate challenge for an actor, and Adams comes through gloriously. When his reserve finally boils over in volcanic rage, it's like Vesuvius come to life. The two actors play against and with each other magnificently. Like fine jazz, the riffs are exciting, unprecedented, and feel totally improvised.

Albee's mesmerizing one-acter is preceded by Tommaney's Salty Dog, a tepid, mercifully short, one-joke about a randy old man (Katrina Ellsworth) being interviewed for a Survivor-like reality show set in the subway system of NYC. Andrew Adams again plays straight man to Ellsworth's sexed-up geriatric. The very improbability of the situation garners a few laughs, but there's not much to it. It's over before it begins.

The verdict:

Albee's play takes place on a sunny day in New York City, but when I saw the performance, storm clouds were rolling in. That's pure Albee.

What I can't figure out is why so few people were in the audience. Where are the theater mavens? First, there's Albee to draw one in. Second, there's Ammons to entice and hold the stage. Enough said. Albee's waiting to beguile, startle, and entertain. Go, already.

Albee's first major success runs through July 15 at Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch. To purchase tickets, visit the company website or call 832-894-1843. $10-$20.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover