Edward Albee’s absurd The Zoo Story emerges well-acted and engaging at Stardust Playhouse

Mad at Dad: Jerry (Tyler Shilstone, left) berates Peter, who is played by his real-life father Mark.

Simplicity is the key to Stardust Playhouse’s The Zoo Story.

Armed with nothing more than a park bench, a few leaves and a crudely-painted backdrop of New York’s Central Park, the Monterey theater leaves the intense complexities to the actors. 

The Zoo Story follows Peter, a quiet and nervous man trying to read in the park on a sunny afternoon, until he is interrupted by the uninvited Jerry, loudly and boisterously trying to tell someone, anyone, about his trip to the zoo.

Peter makes it obvious – quickly – that he does not want to be disturbed, but Jerry doesn’t catch a clue. He’ll talk to anyone and Peter is his man. At first glance, Peter appears well-groomed and organized, a man who has his life together as a publisher with a wife, two daughters, two parakeets and a nice home. He’s the polar opposite of the unkempt Jerry, who lives alone in a shoddy apartment with strange neighbors, a lusty landlady and seemingly lonely existence.

The duo is played by father/son team Mark (Peter) and Tyler (Jerry) Shilstone. Mark’s Peter is reminiscent of a shaky and paranoid Danny DeVito character, bumbling answers to Jerry’s many forward questions. Tyler plays Jerry with precise, quick-paced and sharp speech. 

Edward Albee wrote and set The Zoo Story in 1958 when Americans were unsure of their identity, before the explosion of 1960s freedom. Peter is the epitome of this; he starts off very sure of his place in the world, but with Jerry’s barrage of personal questions (at some points, very personal – he questions Peter’s manhood by stating he couldn’t “even get his wife with male child!”) the onion layers start to be peeled, leaving Peter as a shell, turning him into an angry and cowardly animal stuck in his own zoo of an unhappy life.

The same can be said of Mark and Tyler’s acting. At first it seems the dialogue is just being regurgitated off the script, but the emotion and awkward intensity picks up, giving the audience little chance to catch its breath in the hour-long, one-act play. 

The especially interesting dynamic, however, is watching that intensity unfold in the physically and mentally abusive scenes – like when Jerry pushes Peter against the bench, slapping him repeatedly, questioning his masculinity and calling him a vegetable – while knowing the actors are father and son.

As Albee’s absurdism starts to take control after the start of the play, the characters quickly devolve into uncomfortable messes, which is really Albee’s point: to deconstruct who individuals think they are and take a person out of their comfortable places, mentally and emotionally. As Jerry so eloquently puts it in one of his many monologues (none of which actually have to do with his story of the zoo), “What are you trying to do, make sense of things?!” 

Stardust’s The Zoo Story translates Albee well, letting the absurdity of reality pour out, reversing the roles of a zoo: Here the animals watch the people. 

THE ZOO STORY shows 8pm Friday and Saturday to Sept. 15 at Stardust Playhouse, 2115 Fremont Ave., Monterey. $15. 402-8940, www.stardustplayhousemonterey.com

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