Some actors would worry about building their career on the portrayal of a psychopath. Mental instability is one of the quickest paths to being typecast, and while it’s built some careers (Christopher Walken), it’s destroyed others (Anthony Perkins).
Bill Connington is the creator and star of the bone-chilling, critically lauded adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ 1995 novella Zombie. (The show opened at Theater Row on Saturday after a stint at the 2008 NYC Fringe Festival.) Connington admitted that “people tend to look at you and see something you do well.” What separates Connington’s Quentin P. from any run-of–the-mill serial killer you can see every week on Law & Order is what he described as the “bland, methodical personality of someone you wouldn’t look at twice,” yet who is capable of committing horribly gruesome acts — homemade lobotomies, child molestations, murders — with absolutely no remorse.
Connington, who grew up in Cincinnati but received his training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, was drawn to the British system because he found it “very practical and pragmatic” in terms of voice and body work. Connington made sure to point out that “I am not a method actor” and noted, “It’s part of my personality to have an approach that is a little more objective.” When playing a character as violently disturbed and sociopathic as Quentin P., keeping a relative distance from his performance may be in Connington’s best interest. “I feel so bad when I hear about Heath Ledger and how he basically played two psychotics in a row. I mean it will always affect you somehow, but the British have this thing about leaving it in the theater…I’ve read that Boris Karloff, with all the terrible characters he played, was apparently the gentlest, nicest guy.”
Zombie was as much of an intellectual challenge for Connington as it was a theatrical one. His previous one-man show, Dating Rituals of the American Male, was a quirky work of indie theater that explored ten different characters from ten different decades in reverse chronological order. Connington then set out to adapt a work of literature by a great living American author. He had originally desired to produce a series of short stories as monologues. After first choosing eight of Oates’ hundreds of short stories to adapt, he read Zombie at Oates’ own suggestion.
Oates had originally intended Zombie for the theater, but its eventual length turned it first into a New Yorker short story and then a novella. The book received mixed reviews upon publication and has been out of print for several years (Ecco is republishing it in September), but Connington described Zombie as “the only thing I’ve read as an adult that actually made me frightened.” Connington told me he could only get through the first three-quarters of the book after reading it the first time.
The ability to create that sense of terror for adults in the theater is similarly rare, but Connington’s adaptation produced some of the strongest reactions of any show in the 2008 NYC Fringe Festival. Audiences were legitimately terrified; at the matinee production I saw, a mostly elderly audience had dropped jaws in a mix of shock and revulsion. Connington describes one moment towards the end of the play where he consistently receives from the audience a “particular sound” of “an intake of air followed by a sardonic half-laugh,” which I remember hearing as well. He described the key to getting this response as similar to radio theater, “where the horror takes place in your mind.”
On the phone, Connington was charming, humble, and completely different from the character he inhabited on stage. But as much as his methodical approach to acting distanced him from forming a personal connection to Quentin, it also created a strange level of synergy with the character. “The scary thing,” Connington told me incredulously, “was that I had an immediate understanding of Quentin.” Midway into the rehearsal process, director Thomas Caruso pointed out to Connington that the actor had not asked Caruso for one single character note. “Maybe I should be worried about that?” Connington joked. In fact, the play's staging, a table and a couple of chairs with a notably eerie blow-up doll as a stand-in for Quentin’s multiple failed zombies, were all conceived by Connington immediately. He had never even considered taking the play out of the monologue format, as Oates herself had feared he might do in the adaptation process.
As for a possible explanation for the actor-character synergy, Connington mentioned with notable neutrality that “we’ve all met a lot of narcissists in our lives, and Quentin is a narcissist to the nth, nth, nth degree…this is a guy who doesn’t realize that other people have thoughts that are separate from him. A lot of the time, he doesn’t mean to be mean, he’s just totally oblivious.” There’s a fine line between detachment and utter lack of empathy, and while Connington was disturbed by how natural it was to tap into that side of Quentin, he made sure to note that many audience members were even more disturbed to learn that they too could follow Quentin’s logic very easily.
In fact, the greatest accomplishment of Oates’ novella, which Connington’s production also succeeds in getting across, is that even with the horrible acts Quentin is capable of committing and shamelessly admitting to in his diaries, his way of thinking is not something completely alien to human reason, but perhaps just a side of humanity that is rarely expressed in such a grisly way. One of the major themes in Oates’ prolific career has been exploring the darkest recesses of human experience to find its traces in humanity’s roots.
"When I first told people I was adapting a work [about] a serial killer," Connington said, "the common reaction was ‘how could anyone do something so horrible?’…I’ll be very interested to see what psychiatrists who come to see the show have to say."
Zombie runs through March 29 at Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Aves. Tickets can be purchased at TicketCentral.com. Powered by Sidelines