The latest production from Toy Boat Theatre, a temporary black-box theater company and Spaceworks participant on the Hilltop, is Edward Albee’s “Zoo Story,” which in just one hour manages to descend to the depths of human misery both through Albee’s inimitable wordsmithing and through excellent work from two Tacoma actors.
Scott Campbell (formerly of Lakewood Playhouse and Tacoma Little Theatre) plays Peter, while Luke Amundson (The Outfit, Found Space Productions) plays Jerry in this first of Albee’s plays. Written in 1958, it was initially rejected by American companies for its caustic degradation of “wholesome” American society; it was premiered in West Berlin (of all places) before seeing later success back home. Albee has since written a prequel to fill it out to evening-length, but the acclaimed American playwright allows college and non-professional companies to stage the original one-act version; this is the version so grippingly performed at Toy Boat Theatre this and last weekend.
Campbell and Amundsen take on their rather unlikeable characters in a set-up that makes the most of Toy Boat’s narrow but long space, an empty commercial property available through the Spaceworks program. The foyer is extended with tables for a casual “zoo dinner” (hot dogs, beer and animal crackers) and the play takes place in a back area. With audience rows and the characters’ park benches staking out diagonally opposite corners, director Brie Yost immediately engages the audience; you’re sitting right there in Central Park, unwitting observers to the bizarre and devastating events of the play.
Well-matched in strength, Campbell and Amundsen inhabit their characters fully. As the preppy ‘50s Upper East Side family man Peter, Campbell hits a superbly geeky note, delightfully awkward and anal-retentive, and hilariously shocked at Jerry’s crude sexual references. As Jerry, the blunt, intrusive working-class loner from the Upper West Side, Amundsen is at once threatening and salvatory, relishing Albee’s lengthy monologues. While Jerry interrupts Peter’s afternoon reading in the park with his oddly desperate stories about his landlady and her dog, Yost escalates the tension with clever blocking, moving the two men antagonistically apart then violently close. For the audience, this is as gripping as the back-and-forth of a boxing match, with the undercurrent of Albee’s cynical assessment of dysfunctional American society.
Amid increasing misunderstanding and background animal noise, this “Zoo Story” continues to a spellbinding, metaphorical ending – just as disconcerting as it was half a century ago.
“Zoo Story” by Edward Albee runs at Toy Boat Theatre on Oct. 20, 21 and 22. Hot dog dinner from 7-8 p.m., show 8 p.m., after-show music from 9 p.m. Bands include:
Nate Dybevik and friends (Oct. 20), Seattle’s Country Lips (Oct. 21) and
Leanne Trevalyan and Peter Pendras (Oct. 21). $20. More productions through December. Toy Boat Theatre, 1314 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma. www.toyboattheatre.com