Friends of the Zoo

at Victory Gardens Studio Theater

Harold Ross, the original editor of the New Yorker, didn’t like printing stories about writers. He said as much to his copy editor in the fiction department: “Nobody gives a damn about a writer or his problems except another writer.”

The same could be said about actors.

Perhaps this explains why Naked Zoo, a play-within-a-play and a send-up of the whole Chicago theater scene, was so very enthusiastically received on opening night. I mean, it was a relatively funny show, but I began to wonder why the audience started howling upon the very first actor’s entrance. I now wonder how the show would fare with fewer actors in the audience. I also wonder how the guy three seats to my left managed to fall asleep with so much hooting and laughing going on.

My own response is mixed. The play starts out amusingly enough. The curtain is a black scrim and backlit, the stage reveals the actors warming up for the show. The effect is comically cumulative, with Jeanette Schwaba (as Chloe) inhaling and exhaling positive and negative energy respectively, chanting things like “I love the audience. The audience loves me,” while Mark Nutter (as the Chief) folds a kerchief into a headband and mutters about the red blood of the red man. Finally, Lucia Lombardi (as the stage manager) appears before the scrim and makes the pitch for tax-deductible donations. For $1,000 you can become an acquaintance of the Me First Ensemble. For $10,000 you can join the ensemble and have a part in their next show.

Then the play-within-a-play opens. It’s set in a bar in the southwest, not unlike The Petrified Forest, or Bus Stop, or Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, or When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? OK — bar, diner, dime store — what’s the difference? You got your stock characters: a wooden Indian, a dopey car salesman, a whore, a blind girl, and a mysterious drifter. They’re all hanging about, waiting for the winning lottery number to be announced on the TV at ten. And that’s about the extent of the plot, so all the characters drink a lot of beer and, sound effects permitting, mouth some imagery about rain and thunder.

Funny? Well, sometimes. Maybe you have to be there. Or maybe you have to be on drugs. Or, if you’re an actor, you just might laugh until your face looks like a piece of red meat.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch of greater context, Naked Zoo is a somewhat random satire of Chicago theater. For instance, Peter Burns (a real-life actor and company member of Friends of the Zoo) is listed in the program bio as Chip Van Nuys (a Californian who came to Chicago during the “theater boom” of ’84), who plays the role of Adam (the mysterious drifter). Got it? The other bios are likewise trumped up. (All of them list Jack and Mike and Crime Story under their television credits. Are you laughing yet?)

That leaves John Q. Public sitting there — looking stupid, since much of the humor in the show relies upon a certain familiarity with the art and history of theater, as well as the local theatrical scene. On the other hand, that very familiarity can sometimes kill the joke. To illustrate: At one point, Adam breaks character, reverting to his Chip Van Nuys persona. He just can’t get into his part. Chloe (the actor playing the blind girl) explains to us that the Me First Ensemble often likes to share the process of creation with the audience, and she suggests that the cast engage in “animal consciousness” exercises in order to refresh their characterizations. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen too many chicken and dog impressions in my day to wet my pants over this sort of shtick. Granted, Peter Burns does a fine lizard, but then so does my Uncle Vic, who does it without even trying.

In the course of the play, the actors fall in and out of character like this several times, for various reasons, and with diminishing comic effect. One problem is that Steven Ivcich’s script neglects the play-within-the-play. Surely, with such a classic cast of stock characters, and so many diner/bar/bus-stop plays to borrow from, Ivcich bungled a major opportunity to satirize the whole movement of American dramatic realism. Instead, in the course of the evening, the play-within-a-play disintegrates and is lost, either as metaphor or foundation, and the show, in the end, is just a collection of skits.

As such, Naked Zoo is rather uneven. After a promising opening scene, it slacks off, sustained only by moments and performances. Mark Nutter (as the Indian) is wonderfully dry, very matter-of-fact. In response to some comment about tumbleweeds, he philosophizes, “Weeds must tumble.” Jeanette Schwaba (as Tommi, the blind girl) is hysterically frantic and weird. But, despite the acting and some funny gags, the play doesn’t pick up again until after intermission.

In act two there are some great routines. Peter Burns cranks out his big Vietnam flashback monologue. “When the shit starts flying, I want to be holding the fan.” My favorite scene, however, is the one in which Mark Nutter exorcises the Indian of an oriental demon named Tonga. This martial arts/Kabuki/psychodrama is high silliness of the first degree. If you want to see the last five years of Chicago theater lampooned, you can see it here, and in only five minutes.

The play-within-the-play — and the Me First Ensemble — totally breaks up when Chip (Peter Burns), attired in jockey shorts and bathing cap, goes through rebirthing while chanting Moody Blues lyrics to Jimi Hendrix’s national anthem. At this point, Chip has had it, and he exits to the lobby — with his clothes bundled under his arm, shouting, “Fuck this Chicago theater bullshit!” One by one, the other performers abandon the show to face personal problems: a parking ticket, a failed relationship, a dubious appointment with a representative from the William Morris Agency.

Well, that’s show biz. And, despite a lack of cohesion and continuity, I guess you could argue that Naked Zoo stuck to some sort of theme to the very end. But in-jokes carry you only so far. I walked out of the theater, entertained certainly, but with the impression that either the Friends of the Zoo aren’t all they were cracked up to be or they’ve gotten slack on the strength of past kudos. Hard to say. Maybe it’s just some bad material they ate. The bottom line is: when the subject of theater is theater, whether it’s satire or straight drama, you really don’t need an audience. Unless you push it for some greater, more universal, significance. Otherwise, all you need are friends.