A Pair of puzzling plays


February 20, 1991|By Mike Giuliano

More than 30 years after they were first staged, Edwar Albee's "The American Dream" and "The Zoo Story" have not lost their ability to bewilder audiences. As a patron of the current double bill at Theatre Hopkins remarked to her seatmate: "He was trying to tell us something, but I'm not sure what."

Written at a time when philosophical existentialism and absurdist writing filled the Cold War air, these one-act plays present us with images of middle-class lives that have lost any real meaning or emotional connection.

The stronger of the two plays is also the more effectively realized at Theatre Hopkins. Beautiful in the simplicity of its set-up, "The Zoo Story" takes place on a bench in Central Park. Peter (Greg Seagle) is a conservatively dressed publishing executive who likes to sit there with a book on Sunday afternoons. He has a wife, two daughters and pets comfortably nestled in an Upper East Side apartment. Jerry (Tom Blair), who walks by and insists on starting a conversation, is a lonely slob living in an Upper West Side rooming house.

Mr. Albee does a marvelous job with the conversational jousting between Peter, who describes himself as "normally reticent," and Jerry, who is anything but reticent in discussing his daily humiliations. The best stretch is a long monologue in which Jerry talks about his landlady's dog. He has tried to love the dog, tried to kill it, and failed at both. As movingly related by actor Tom Blair, Jerry's monologue reveals his dealings with people have been no more successful than his attempts to relate to animals.

Jerry's desperate need to communicate leads to Peter's realization that even civilized men have something of the animal still in them.

"The American Dream" is set indoors and in a more comic mode. It's an apt bit of stage design at Theatre Hopkins that the living room is represented by furniture made from painted plywood, while the shelves of family china are represented by no more than a painted backdrop. It is against the cartoonish flatness of this set that Mr. Albee gives us characters known generically as Mommy (Betty Corwell), Daddy (Alan Hogle) and Grandma (Marie Ipes).

At the outset, frozen smiles on Mommy and Daddy's faces lead to a fatuous exchange about Mommy's shopping expedition to buy a hat. But her triumphant consumerism can't mask what we learn soon enough: Although there is no bundle of joy in this childless household, there is Mommy's own doddering mother, whom Mommy threatens to send off to a nursing home.

Their illogical exchanges are often very funny. But the performances range in quality from the convincing meanness of Betty Corwell's Mommy to the too-subdued whining of Marie Ipes' Grandma. Overall, the cast should think less about character and more about caricature.

"The American Dream" and "The Zoo Story" will be presented weekends at Theatre Hopkins through March 17. For ticket information call 338-7159.

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