Bare-Knuckled in the Park

Edward Albee's The Zoo Story makes for a crazy day out

It's difficult imagining a more idyllic way to enjoy an afternoon of stimulating theater than spending a Sunday in the park with Ed.

During a recent matinee, Edge Theatre staged a minimalist production of Edward Albee's The Zoo Story outdoors, on the lawn of the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, under towering date palms that blanketed spectators in a soothing canopy of shade.

As a trickle of patrons settled into plastic patio chairs loosely arranged near a fountain, director Jim Tommaney served complimentary iced tea and lemonade.

Jerry Jensen (left) and David J. Hernandez in The Zoo 
Story
Jerry Jensen (left) and David J. Hernandez in The Zoo Story

Details

Through November 26. Directed by Jim Tommaney. With Jerry Jensen and David J. Hernandez.
Miami Beach Botanical Garden, 2000 Convention Center Dr, Miami Beach; 786-355-0976, edgetheatre@earthlink.net.

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A few steps away, a tourist navigated the sun-dappled tropical foliage to film a mist of butterflies bouncing in the breeze.

Tommaney, who founded the company in South Beach in 1995 and has since produced 130 plays on stages scattered across town, couldn't have chosen a better place or price, or for that matter play, to entice a curious crowd. Tickets for Edge's delightful weekend shows are a steal at ten bucks.

During a three-week period in 1959, Albee cranked The Zoo Story out of a typewriter he had "liberated" from Western Union. He had just quit his job as a telegram messenger boy and was in a fervor to produce something meaningful before his thirtieth birthday.

The searing one-act result, about a numbing encounter between a middle-age publishing exec and a disturbed transient, still retains the power to shock audiences nearly a half-century later.

The Zoo Story was first produced in Germany in 1959 and debuted off-Broadway in 1960, where it cemented the playwright's reputation overnight, earned Albee an OBIE Award, and drop-kicked American theater into a more provocative era. Albee would go on to win three Pulitzer Prizes and two Tony Awards during a career bracketed by as many bombs as hits.

Running a bone-lean 55 minutes, the play is steeped in black humor, barbed dialogue, and themes of dehumanization and death, all common riffs in Albee's work.

Broadly outlined, the action unfolds in real time between strangers who tussle over a bench in New York's Central Park. Class warfare erupts on a gut-gripping level between the two men, who come from disparate backgrounds, careening headlong toward a violent end.

Peter, who lives high on the hog with his wife and two kids, likes to camp himself on the same bench every Sunday to relax with a pipe and a book.

Jerry, who squats in a run-down boarding house with a menagerie of kooks, has just come from the zoo and is hell-bent on unloading his misery on a sympathetic ear. He intrudes on the older man's solitude, shellacking him with bizarre personal details, including a windy monologue about a foiled plot to poison a rabid mutt roaming his building's halls.

The role of Peter is a tough row for an actor to hoe. He's a tweedy schlub who is out of touch with the reality beyond his comfy middle-class existence. This one-dimensional character is a foil to the three-dimensional stalker, Jerry, and Peter ends up gypped of his fair share of lines.

Jerry Jensen, a relative newcomer to local theater, milks the thinly fleshed Peter for a load, earning the audience's sympathy as he squirms uncomfortably throughout the deranged drifter's barrage. He plays his role with an economy of gesture yet makes the body language count, slowly transforming Peter from a stuffed suit into an urban animal scrapping to defend himself against Jerry's manic attack.

David J. Hernandez hogs the thunder as the flaked-out marauder Jerry. He aggressively yanks the carpet from under Peter's controlled environment, delivering a spot-on performance that drew audible shivers from the crowd. Watching a tightly coiled Hernandez circle Jensen's Peter like a hyena set an immediate tone of unease.

By the time Hernandez launched into "The Story of Jerry and the Dog" — a flighty mouthful in which he describes his attempt to connect with a boarding-house pet that tries to bite him whenever he approaches — the actor had everyone eating out of his hands.

Tommaney, a playwright himself, coaxes solid performances from his leads, astutely sticking to the psychological nature of Albee's alternately frightening and funny tale.

The Zoo Story's climax, with both Peter and Jerry uttering "Oh my God" from vastly different depths, peels the layers of complacency back — in a way that remains timeless — to remind us of our society's blistering cruelty.

Those afflicted with Peter's fussy stripe might leave moaning that the wail of a siren or the roar of a jet engine occasionally intrudes on the play, but the hiccups are bearable. Vintage Albee beats the hell out of the crap often touted as provocative theater today.

 
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