The Zoo Story
As he did in the searing drama Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee approaches human frailty metaphorically in his 1959 one-act The Zoo Story. Characters reveal themselves by talking at each other, and conversations that begin civilly enough devolve into verbal sparring matches hinting at inevitable violence. But Albee's greatest strength -- writerly passages delineating bitterness, rage, and desperation without mentioning them directly -- is also the biggest trap awaiting his actors, and this two-man Mercury Productions cast doesn't escape completely. As Jerry, the disillusioned loner who carries most of the play, Berkeley Rep veteran Michael McKee effectively teeters between affable and unhinged as he distracts the reticent family man Peter (Matt Walters) from his Sunday afternoon reading in Central Park. The Zoo Story addresses the simple human longing for companionship and understanding, and when the actors hit their stride, Albee's language snaps and crackles with a near-painful veracity. This often adept production is, however, hobbled by sluggish pacing and ginger handling of an already difficult script that wasn't improved by efforts to modernize it.

Through July 24 at Bannam Place Theater, 50 Bannam, S.F. Admission is $8-15; call 831-8067.

-- Heather Wisner

Alice: Tales of a Curious Girl
At its best, Karen Hartman's take on Lewis Carroll's Alice explores the tension between a "grown-up" world in which Charles Dodgson's tales are a Freudian's wet dream -- a pedophile's symptomatic repression and transference -- and a child's world in which Wonderland conjures mysterious nonsense that makes a deeper sense. At the play's worst, feminist cant about Women's Lot creeps in. Still, director Tony Kelly creates both humor and genuine emotion, making good use of his actors. Maria Candelaria plays Alice sweetly and without condescension, capturing both fear and eagerness in growing up. Wilma Bonet and Da'Mon Vann, a pair of energetic pros, effortlessly switch among their various roles. They're hilarious as the Duchess and Cook who torture a baby with pepper and Tabasco, while Bonet's Queen of Hearts is a cross between Margaret Hamilton and Dr. Ruth. Richard Olmsted's set employs a checkerboard of pastel blues and greens and doors of varying size, and his lighting is evocative and whimsical. Gina Leishman's wonderful music and songs are simple and baroque, like ornately arranged lullabies played on a harpsichord. Despite the flaws in Hartman's script, Alice has theatrical magic.

Through July 11 at the New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom (at Ninth Street), S.F. Admission is $10-15; call 565-0331.

-- Joe Mader

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