Changing times may have softened the impact of some of playwright Edward Albee’s work, but not by much. Among the productions of his plays that have run recently on local stages, “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” by Mad Horse Theater had its laughs tied up with an unavoidable squirm factor. And Acorn Productions’ take on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” brought us into that famous living room just in time to once again witness the marriage from hell.

Now the University of Southern Maine theater department has brought two of Albee’s early works for a run at the intimate Studio Theater at Portland Stage. The one-acts “The Zoo Story” and “The American Dream” indeed show that the playwright was already a force to be reckoned with upon his emergence 50-odd years ago.

“The Zoo Story” is sometimes paired with works by Samuel Beckett and the play gives off that Beckett-like sense of undefined menace as its two male strangers undertake a conversation that is both banal and bizarre on a Sunday afternoon in Central Park.

Nathan Lapointe’s Jerry does most of the talking as he tries to draw Dalton Kimball’s uneasy Peter into the narrative of disconnection and dysfunction that represents his life. Who’s worse off, Albee wants to ask, the half-crazy guy who struggles with absurd intensity to relate to anyone or the guy who’s locked into a complacent, unquestioned, middle-class existence?

Friday’s opening performance started off slowly but built nicely toward the action of the final moments. The two young actors, under the direction of William Steele, established the stakes of their bleak encounter with impressive skill.

“The American Dream” has a more surreal tone that five actors must work hard to maintain.

We know we’re in a world of satire when only one character is given a name and the others are referred to as Mommy, Daddy, Grandma and The Young Man. And none of the characters, except Madelyn James’ Grandma, seems to know exactly what is going on as they interact in their New York apartment.

The shallowness and hypocrisy of family and other values got an early going-over by Albee in this very funny play, again directed by Steele. James was a gem but S. Anna Irving, Kirk Boettcher, Kimberley Stacy and, in his second role of the evening, Kimball all got some choice lines.

It’s a wacky and perhaps ultimately more cynical take on hopes and dreams, American-style.

Though some of the pop-cultural references have been tweaked by Steele and company, a greater recognition of diversity is one of the changes these works could not have contemplated. Nevertheless, the playwright was on to something that still resonates and USM theater has made an important contribution by presenting these engaging performances of works by Albee.

 

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.