There are other distinctions between the two one-acts: In The Zoo Story, all action builds to the violence of the final minute; in Marriage Play, the most violent moment occurs at the outset with Jack's pronouncement. If The Zoo Story is a brash account of a big, brutal, predetermined death, Marriage Play is a more rueful drama, concerned with the small, corrosive, intangible deaths that occur every day -- the death of dependency, the death of trust, the death of love -- none inevitable and all likely the result of carelessness and neglect.
When, at evening's end, Gillian muses, "I dreamed you loved me," one might wonder whether the entire play is a dream. That's because the disembodied dialogue is composed in what is now readily recognized as the Albee style. The great theater critic Harold Clurman once defined that style as language that "seems written from a tomb, a world on the other side of existence."
M. Stevenson Strelinger
John Shepherd and Brian Hyde in The Zoo Story
The Zoo Story -- By Edward Albee. Performed by Hydeware Theatre Company through May 10 at the Art Coop, 1520 Washington Avenue. Call 314-368-7306.
Marriage Play -- By Edward Albee. Performed by the Spotlight Theatre through May 11 at Cherokee Court, 1908 Cherokee Street. Call 314-918-8424.
Ostensibly Marriage Play is set in Jack and Gillian's home. But this Spotlight Theatre production is being performed in a cozy space that, with its rich cranberry-sherbet walls, might well pass for a luxurious tomb. Living room or grave for the dead, this intimate environment, like Act 2 of The Zoo Story, effectively forces the viewer into the play. Once again, there's no escaping the raw fact that we are a part of the action.
As Jack and Gillian, Peter Mayer and Judi Mann perform like riders on a seesaw. When one is up, the other is down. He is at his most affecting when at his most vulnerable. (In response to the aforementioned "I dreamed you loved me," Mayer's despairing reply, "I do," is heartfelt and wrenching.) She is at her most persuasive when least defensive, when she's able to toss away lines as easily as she can toss a book onto the sofa. But there are moments when a viewer almost wishes that director Joneal Joplin had told auditioning actors he was casting Neil Simon's Marriage Play. The pace could benefit from fewer heavy pauses and a less reverential tone.
Yet seriousness is hard to avoid when you stage Albee. If the playwright had his way, he would direct every production of all his works. That's not possible, so he does the next best (worst) thing: He expects actors to follow the precise blueprint of italicized words, commas and semicolons that he intricately charts in his scripts. It takes a brave company to ignore all that free advice. If such irreverence is exactly what's needed, there's also a sense of event here at attending this rarely produced part of the Albee canon.
Back in 1971, Albee told an interviewer, "I write plays about how people waste their lives." These two one-acts, written 27 years apart, would suggest that, despite the many highs and lows of a jagged career, the moral imperative that underlies the vast body of his work has been remarkably consistent.