How often do you strike up a conversation with a stranger in public? I will occasionally talk to people at airports or at stores, but I definitely don’t tell strangers my life story. However, that doesn’t change the fact that when I am really stressed out in public, I want people to ask if I’m okay. If I’m writing on an airplane and I feel like you’re looking over my shoulder to see what I’m doing, I want you to go ahead and ask me about it. That’s not quite so common anymore. We use books and headphones and technology to block out the outside world. Stories of life-changing interactions with strangers on the news or in media are the only place we see this kind of connection anymore.
Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Albee explores this in his two-man play The Zoo Story, directed recently at Bates by Nicholas Longo ’21 as part of an Independent Study in Directing. Independent Studies are the stepping stone for junior-year directing majors to their final senior thesis. Most Independent Studies are about forty-five minutes to an hour long, featuring two or three actors, performed in Black Box Theater with minimal tech elements. In my experience, the Black Box creates the strongest connection between text and audience, and The Zoo Story was no exception. Sitting dead center in the front row, I got an up-close and personal look at this quest for the human connection and what it really means to change someone’s life.
The play opens with Peter, played by Max Younger ’22, reading alone on a park bench when Jerry, played by Johnny Esposito ’22, arrives and strikes up a conversation. Jerry proceeds to tell Peter about his own life, while making disparaging remarks about Peter’s. The play is structured in such a way that most of the play is monologues of Jerry’s. Roughly in the middle of the piece, Jerry has a long, captivating monologue that, according to Esposito, normally clocks at around twenty minutes. It is a play that requires stamina, commitment, and a straight face, and it was done fantastically.
Longo acts in addition to directing, and evidence of this littered the production. If you went into the Black Box during the rehearsal period, you would see walls covered with character breakdowns, guiding questions, and even sightline signs indicating where the actors should be looking or not looking at specific moments. It is clear that Longo went over the play with a fine-toothed comb, pulling out every single piece of import, including in two of the strongest performances I’ve seen from Esposito and Younger. The two were unrecognizable. Both have been in productions at Bates before, but I had not yet seen them both slip so deeply and fully into character. Esposito had moments where Jerry questions himself and what he has just said. They felt so lifelike to me that I had a couple moments of paralyzing fear that Esposito was actively searching for a line. Younger had the difficult task of just listening for so much of the play, but he managed to stay engaged and be engaging when Esposito’s travels around the stage brought him back into focus.
The play ends with a slow-building confrontation between the two. In the final moments, Peter holds Jerry’s knife, and Jerry takes Peter’s hand and jams the knife into his stomach. The night I saw, the blood pack did not work and the knife broke in half, but Esposito and Younger both covered well. Jerry thanks Peter, then sends him on his way, even going so far as to wipe Peter’s fingerprints off the knife to absolve him of blame. The assisted suicide serves two purposes: For Jerry, the whole play has been leading to this very moment. All of his questions about love and relationships have been as much for Peter as they have been for him. Peter, the married father of two girls who appears to not be fully satisfied with his own life, leaves the park at the end of the show. He presumably returns home to his wife, children, and small menagerie of pets with Jerry’s questions of what it means to form honest, genuine connection banging around in his head, and the knowledge of Jerry’s inability to cope with that lying as a corpse on Peter’s sacred Central Park bench.
I know that is how I left the theater after this beautiful, strong, talent-filled piece of work. Are we all just animals in a zoo?