Paper tiger

Plays & Players presents Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story

4 minute read
Bergen, in the foreground, shares a park bench with DaPonte. Both men look outward with worried, contemplative expressions
Kevin Bergen (left) and Robert DaPonte in ‘Zoo Story’ at Plays & Players. (Photo by Rosie Simmons Photography.)

“I’ve been to the zoo.”

So begins Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, perhaps the finest one-act in the American theater, with a line that forecasts the rest of both the play and Albee’s career. In many ways, his oeuvre seems to sprawl from this stark proclamation—that of a man who witnessed the circus of American life and came to the stage to report on the animals he saw. Yet in a new production from Plays & Players, the line is delivered not with any weight but in a stagy whisper. It seems at once tentative and overcooked and unfortunately sets the tenor for the production to follow.

Directed here by Steven A. Wright, The Zoo Story follows two men in Central Park in a single extended scene, the first of Albee’s experiments in wedding the American domestic drama to the theater of the absurd. Peter (Kevin Bergen) is a well-to-do publishing executive, the kind of midcentury family man for whom the phrase “white bread” seems too flavorful, while Jerry (Robert DaPonte) is an unkempt loner on society’s fringe. He relays episodes from his life to Peter in what seem like sharp, desperate stabs at human connection. Albee’s script is as tight as the day it was written, but these performances fail to capture the fire of the text, rendering the play flat and oddly distant.

Only uncomfortable

Much of this can be attributed to DaPonte’s overly composed turn as Jerry, afraid of the swings that are essential to the part. Jerry must possess a certain edge, at once unsettling and somehow alluring, a strange moon that enters Peter’s orbit and portends irreversible chaos. But DaPonte’s monologues are too practiced, his stance too controlled. Sure, he wears a leather jacket to contrast Peter’s baby-blue button-down, but it lacks the texture that suggests a lived-in attire, not simply a costume but a character. His is ultimately a half-hearted intimation of vagrancy, an especially disappointing rendition in a neighborhood that so often bears witness to such vagrants. He never conjures a true sense of danger, nor does the play.

Bergen’s Peter more closely resembles the character in the script—the stuffy husband/father/pet owner who has crested middle age—but still his performance lacks in a certain dimensionality. Worry knits itself across his brow, and a flustered indignity bubbles up at Jerry’s racier coinages, but rarely do we see why he chooses to stay in the park. Is it a suppressed curiosity that draws him into Jerry’s tales, or a territoriality that compels him to hold his ground? The answer is unclear to this Peter and to the audience as a result. Instead of achieving the rich interplay of which the script is capable, we settle for simple discomfort.

In search of animal and spectator

Little assistance is found in the surrounding scene. Even for a play that takes place at a park bench, the staging, designed by Raven Buck, seems especially restrictive, the blocking often rigidly partitioning the actors to their designated corners of the stage. The Central Park backdrop is illustrated in an impressionistic style, lending the whole affair the stale air of a museum piece. Wright’s direction feels so hands-off at times as to be nonexistent, leaving the actors to their stations in a painting that wants for more considered spacing.

As the play crescendos, Bergen and DaPonte are able to find occasional friction, but it’s ultimately a case of too little, too late. Without the dramatic tension properly established from the outset, the final confrontation can only appear as so much noise. Peter letting down his guard and Jerry taking a frightening turn are moments that only work if we understand why Peter has kept himself seated on the bench and if we believe in Jerry’s desolate quest to find a kindred soul.

More than half a century on, The Zoo Story remains one of Albee’s most potent metaphors. It seems we may never hear Jerry recount his titular story, only to realize that we’ve been watching it unfold in front of us the whole time: two men observe each other as animal and spectator, neither quite sure which of them is in the cage. It’s a shame that this restaging so misses that power. It provides a mere facsimile of that exhibit, only paper tigers within.

What, When, Where

The Zoo Story. By Edward Albee, directed by Stephen A. Wright. $25. Through April 14, 2024, at the Skinner Studio at Plays & Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Street, Philadelphia. (215) 735-0630 or


The Skinner Studio is located on the third floor and accessible only by stairs.

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