Joyce Carol Oates is a technically proficient writer, which is to say that she writes a lot, and that she writes well. This is not to say, however, that her stories are particularly good. A similar issue hits Bill Connington's theatrical adaptation of her 1995 novella, Zombie. Connington is a skillful actor, consistent in his approach, and the source material--a first-person diary--translates well to monologue form. However, the tale of lonely old Quentin P., who lives in his dead grandmother's basement and becomes a sexual serial killer, is a little too up close and impersonal. At times, it is easier to appreciate the carefully measured artifice of it all--director Thomas Caruso does a terrific job--than to get behind the actual performance.
The play begins immediately, as the lights flicker black for a moment, only to suddenly reveal the mild-mannered Quentin, sitting across from a tall but child-faced mannequin, playing chess by himself. He speaks factually, without looking at us, which fits his self-description: "I make no eye contact with anybody. Eye contact has been my downfall." That makes his occasional glances at us all the more creepy: sly winks to an implicit audience, secret smiles at a delicious memory, and an emphasis of how trivial this all is--to him. Because the actions are so deliberate--for instance, the way Quentin uses a white king and a black pawn to demonstrate his final crime--things remain largely cerebral, relying too heavily on the sparse atmosphere of a one-table set.
Furthermore, because Connington's performance is so forcibly restrained, his sudden bursts of anger come across as premeditated, or intellectually deployed. He comes across more as a mimic of, say, Hopkins's Hannibal, or of the real-life Dahmer (from which Zombie was loosely inspired) than of a man of mixed emotions. Which is, again, not to say that any of this is bad--in fact, such control leads to moments of brilliance, where the clockwork recedes into the background and we see only the maddening face of a man who fears rejection so much that he performs self-researched "transorbital" lobotomies on his victims (an icepick through the eye) in order to make them his willing slaves. He wishes not only to hear them say "Fuck me in the ass master until I bleed blue guts," but also for them to share pizza and cuddle in bed with him. His tragic flaw is that he's a romantic, something best shown by the varying degrees of force he uses when interacting with the mannequin.
It's hard to say whether or not the hour-long Zombie provides enough meat to the audience, or if the performance is too focused to be enjoyable. It will, however, certainly satisfy those who share an affinity for a zombie's favorite treat--the thing most on display here is the brain.