MISSION VIEJO — Every new theater has to open with something; why not open with a playwright’s first play? And if you’re calling your theater American Classic Repertory, why not open with Edward Albee’s classic first, "The Zoo Story"?
The ACR people have billed it with another early one-act by an American playwright, Lanford Wilson’s not-so-classic "Great Nebula in Orion."
When "Zoo Story" premiered 35 years ago, it was paired with Samuel Beckett’s "Krapp’s Last Tape," which pointed to the absurdist identity of the Albee play. This pairing points to something else: "Zoo Story" also is a New York play, a Central Park play; the action takes place smack in the middle of the very same park that the apartment dwellers in Wilson’s play look down upon.
"Zoo Story" is set at the beginning of the ’60s, while "Orion" is set at the fiery decade’s end. Albee’s unbalanced, violent, self-obsessed Jerry was a precursor of things to come.
Smart programming, which suggests that this storefront space, tucked away in yet another faceless South County commercial strip, is run by some thinking theater people (Joann Urban, Kevin O’Loane and director Lee Clark). As the group’s name indicates, the plan is to produce American classics, though the first season puts a modern spin on the term with "Brighton Beach Memoirs" slated for March and Wilson’s "Fifth of July" in June).
The damper on this company is its space, which was designed for children’s theater inside Mission Viejo’s Masquerade Village Costume Shop (fairy-tale castles and forests line the walls). Any charm that might come from entering a costume shop for a play quickly dissolves in the space itself–"a cold room," as jazz musicians put it. A hard, unraked floor with folding metal chairs faces a raised stage consumed by black walls slanting into a triangular corner.
All that plus rudimentary lights and slapdash living room furniture immediately put this "Great Nebula" into a black hole. For a while, though, it sounds as if Cynthia Givens as hostess Louise and Susan Levinstein as her former Bryn Mawr mate, prim and proper Carrie, might prime the pump of Wilson’s duologue, which is stuffed with sexual innuendo and between-the-lines petty jealousies.
Levinstein is decked out in a perfect, very Cardin-like, late ’60s tailored affair, and fits it nicely. She’s snappy but knows her manners. Givens doesn’t pin down laid-back Louise’s identity with as much accuracy, but she does suggest emotional business curdling beneath the surface.
However, duologues require an energy and focus that just aren’t present here, and as Wilson drives toward his conclusion, the actors go through the motions.
"Zoo Story" comes closer to the mark. Visually, in fact, it comes close to a dream production. There’s glassy-eyed, bookish Peter (Randy Monte), minding his business on a park bench. Here comes loud, broad-shouldered, lumbering Jerry (O’Loane), gradually imposing his territorial claim on the bench. Monte, with his spindly physique, and O’Loane, with his body like a football player’s, symbolize Albee’s absurdist archetype of the two warring sides of maleness–and of civilization, as Jerry makes a strong case for jungle dwellers while Peter argues reason and order.
Monte slants things too much toward caricature, and O’Loane resists the temptation to play this as a tour-de-force, even though that’s how Albee wrote it. He also resists some of the comedy, as well as Jerry’s monstrous implications.
But it’s a performance on the right track, and one hopes that’s the case with a theater with such noble intentions as this. Now, it needs a nobler home to match.
* "The Great Nebula in Orion" and "The Zoo Story," American Classic Repertory, 23891 Via Fabricante No. 611-612, Mission Viejo. Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m. Sat. Oct. 8, 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 8. $10. (714) 542-1306. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.