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Albee’s Zoo story captures the human animal

Jules Becker | 3/1/2012, 10:04 a.m.

A New York City brownstone lies at the heart of loner Jerry’s back story in the now classic 1958 drama “The Zoo Story.” Playwright Edward Albee has the down-and-out, fourth-floor resident tell Central Park bench regular Peter about his multicultural building.

Jerry’s neighbors include a Puerto Rican family and a black drag queen dressed in a Japanese kimono. The drag queen keeps his door open when he plucks his eye brows, but never bothers Jerry.

By contrast, Jerry not only bothers Peter but eventually challenges him in a riveting moment of truth  staged by The New Theatre Company in its inaugural production, now at the Factory Theatre.

One man’s bothering is another man’s attempt at connection, Albee might say. An orphan at an early age, Jerry may be seeking friendship or at least a friendly ear.  An unlikely listener let alone friend, Peter simply wants to read a book in peace and quiet.

As Jerry tells him “The Story of Jerry and the Dog,” the face-off between Jerry and the landlady’s dog foreshadows a similar one between Peter and Jerry. Albee eventually added a prequel-like first act called “Homelife” (2009) to flesh out Peter’s own back story. The two act play became known as “Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo” received a solid Boston premiere last year by Zeitgeist Stage. Even so, “Zoo Story” continues to stand by itself as a powerful study of people struggling to balance the human and the animal within.

New Theatre Company artistic director Devon Scalisi calls “The Zoo Story” his favorite play, and his love for Albee’s 75-minute gem shows.

The company’s debut production captures the changing forms of Jerry and Peter’s encounter: from Jerry’s one-sided attempts at conversation with uptight Peter’s through a short-lived lull of tickling and horsing around to a still – chilling yet strangely cathartic conclusion.

Scalisi, both director and actor as Jerry, has chosen to keep the Central Park design -- two benches -- as spare as Albee’s taut play. Rob Gustison, who plays Peter, also serves as sound designer --providing bird sounds -- and blood technician for the demands of the violent ending.

Scalisi and Gustison are also including the 1959 Phil Phillips song “Sea of Love.” Given Jerry’s difficult search for love and understanding, Phillip’s impassioned delivery adds a welcome irony to the mix. Ryan Kasle’s nuanced lighting evokes the alternately bright and dim chances of real understanding between Jerry and Peter.

Sensitive staging aside, what really makes the New Theatre’s inaugural production a winner is Scalisi and Gustifson. Scalisi is rightly dressed in hooded jacket, jeans and sport shoes to catch all of Jerry’s complexity and contradictions.

His Jerry is rightly both a garrulous story teller and  prodding inquirer. Scalisi combines Jerry’s powers of observation about the brownstone and his curious moments of simplicity and naiveté.

Best of all, he actually becomes a dog like human as the encounter heats up and brings remarkable intensity to Jerry’s lunges and circlings.

At the same time, he never loses sight of Jerry’s resemblance to Jesus in moments of self-sacrifice.

Gustifson -- decked out in fitting conservative tweeds -- moves convincingly from Peter’s self-satisfaction as a middle-class publishing house executive and family man to a shaken human being questioning his sense of security and prepared to join the metaphorical zoo of life when threatened.

Early on Jerry speaks of having visited the nearby zoo. Brilliantly Albee keeps him from ever telling Peter the Story of the Zoo. That is ,of course, just the point. “The Zoo Story” turns out to be a revealing visit to the animal side of humanity. In the very intimate confines of the Factory Theatre and New Theatre’s galvanized revival, that visit is a real eye-opener.


The Zoo Story, The New Theatre Company,  Factory Theatre, 791 Tremont Street, South End, Boston, through March 3. 800-836-3006 or brownpapertickets.org.