Surprising similarities: Both Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story and Shakespeare’s Richard III are young men’s plays, comic tours de force about death, despair, and an inadequate self’s hunger for power over others. Both feature flamboyant displays of rhetoric, as if the young hero’s sense of inadequacy had infected the text with a frantic need to show off. And in both, the hero’s broad streak of sentimental self-pity gets torpedoed by his self-knowing sarcasm. Both, too, are zoo stories of a sort: Befitting his constant sense of not quite belonging to the human race, Jerry, before encountering Peter, has chiefly tried to relate to a dog; Richard’s victims abuse him with a whole zooful of animal epithets, “dog” included.
In 1958, The Zoo Story was Albee’s sensational debut play. Now, looking back on it as a healthy senior citizen, he’s added a prelude, Homelife, which rebalances as a trio what used to be a shocking solo-with-accompaniment. Jerry (Dallas Roberts) is still Jerry, the desperate, detached soul striving to make contact with somebody, anybody, even if making contact means a combat to the death. Only now, retitled Peter and Jerry, the play is about Peter (Bill Pullman). In Homelife, he and his wife, Ann (Johanna Day), have the kind of flickeringly intimate, unsettling conversation that couples settled in their ways often have before one of them decides to go out for a walk. Peter goes out, and meets Jerry; the result presents the audience with an unwritten third act, in which the effect of that encounter on Peter’s marriage will be central. The end of The Zoo Story as a separate play used to be complete: Jerry was dead and Peter, the respectable audience’s agent onstage, was traumatized. Now, individualized and deepened, Peter turns out to have some Jerryish aspects of his own, making this encounter somehow inevitable.
The young Albee was angry, but smart enough to know that life held more than the angry despair he embodied in Jerry. The wiser Albee, aged and mellowed, encases the anger in a bittersweet, helpless compassion that accepts the world as the dangerously troubling place it is. No one is ever really safe, no communication ever complete, not even the closest. As gently as Homelife touches on these ideas, it makes a fitting match for The Zoo Story‘s frenzied, jabbing emotionality. Even Albee’s whimsical quirk of setting Homelife in today’s world of microwaves and cell phones, while The Zoo Story audibly conveys the tone of 1950s New York, barely dents the sense of spiritual continuity that makes the two plays clearly one man’s work. Albee’s growth is perceptible: One now sees that Jerry’s death, like Young Werther’s, was necessary for his author, a magic key that unlocked the door to all his subsequent achievements by banishing the most discomfiting part of himself. Only after Jerry was dead, in a sense, could Peter emerge as a fully three-dimensional character.
Or maybe Peter couldn’t emerge until Bill Pullman had arrived as the Albee actor par excellence. In one of those marvelously improbable mergers of sensibility that sometimes occur, Pullman has become the perfect incarnation of an Albee prototype, the upper-middle-class man whose impassive exterior is being crumbled from within by a seeping disquiet. The type has many facets; Pullman’s hapless, plaintive-toned Peter seems miles from the sleekly complacent architect he played in
The Goat. Under Pam MacKinnon’s direction, Johanna Day makes Pullman a superb partner, always just this side of harshness. Dallas Roberts, though mannered, handles Jerry’s ferocious desperation powerfully. MacKinnon’s staging here, oddly, seems to attenuate the drama, constantly pulling Jerry away from Peter till he seems to be avoiding rather than seeking the human contact that’s his entire goal. This tends to highlight the slightly hokey theatricality that was always the flaw in The Zoo Story‘s pithy flamboyance, but never keeps it from being, as it somehow always has been, spellbinding.
King Richard III is a spellbinder too, a honey-tongued, innocent-faced royal Jerry, his anger turned outward instead of on himself, who manages to kill a great many good-natured Peters before one of them finally gets him. We love watching him get away with it: The play, as Shaw pointed out, is really a Punch-and-Judy show raised to the highest poetic power. Only Shakespeare adds a moral perspective: Instead of outwitting the Devil for a finale, this Punch carries his own hell inside him, fueled by outside help like his mother’s dying curse.
Contemporary directors usually louse up Richard III by trying to make too much of it. Brian Kulick and Michael Cumpsty’s CSC production is the best and most cohesive I’ve seen in years precisely because it finds simple, lucid ways to lay out the play’s simple matrix. Cumpsty, on his third CSC outing in a heroic Shakespeare role, catches both Richard’s fury and his irony; the production sagely allows him to drive the evening, a nastily genial emcee and puppet master whom, after enough corpses have piled up, we can’t wait to see get outmastered. The co-directors display even more sagacity in casting several key roles with actors who can give the rhetoric both grit and poetic value, especially Michael Potts (Buckingham), Judith Roberts (Duchess of York), and Roberta Maxwell, whose Queen Margaret spectacularly combines regal bravura with the tough-jawed lope of a homeless person out for anything she can get. Mark Wendland’s ingenious set, a double row of chandeliers that raise and lower to evoke the changing moods and locales, captures the production’s approach, a kind of sparse lavishness, to perfection.