At Home at the Zoo by Edward Albee
At the Signature Theatre on 42nd Street
BSonArts rating: A
Show-Score rating: 95
Once again, the Signature Theatre has brought us an enlightening revival of a frequently produced play that is timely and worth re-experiencing now. Actually, Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story” and its prequel, originally titled “Homelife,” has gone through a number of iterations since the playwright decided to revise and expand his first success, “The Zoo Story,” written in 1959, into a two-act play in 2004. So, this Signature production is valuable because we see these two dramas made into one that literally spans the life of one of our greatest playwrights.
The Signature production of “At Home at the Zoo” is a beautifully conceptualized and an impressively executed evening in the theatre unto itself. But it is equally remarkable in the way it illustrates a through-line in Albee’s oeuvre. “The Zoo Story” is an examination of relationship. At its core, the famous story of Jerry and the dog tells us about a man’s struggle to develop an “authentic” relationship. He is incapable of having such a true bond with another person. – he tells us his longest “relationships” with the opposite sex have all been one-night stands. So, he tries to forge a liaison with a dog in his rundown flop house – a dog that tries to tear into him whenever he returns home.
The plot of “The Zoo Story” is the story of that same man trying to establish an authentic relationship with a total stranger. And like his comment about his efforts to reach out to the dog, his strategy is to “kill him with kindness, and if that doesn’t work, just kill him,” or be killed by him. Albee distinguishes between simply having a relationship with another individual and having an “authentic relationship.” As Jerry clearly articulates, a true relationship depends on a balance between love and hurt and a truly authentic relationship requires both partners to accept both qualities in the other.
This is a recurring theme in much of Albee’s work. “The Delicate Balance” shows us a family that has come to accept and even thrive on the balance with which they perceive the good and bad in each other. That balance is threatened when two friends seek salvation in their home and they must be sent home before the true relationships within the family deteriorate. George must rescue Martha from her delusionary state to maintain the balance in their fractious marriage and preserve their tolerance for “authentic” love and hurt in Albee’s most famous play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” Even in one of Albee’s more outlandish, but puzzlingly reasonable, concept plays, “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?”, we are confronted with a man who has come to see his relationship with a goat to be more satisfying and more fulfilling than his bond with his wife.
So, it should come as no surprise that Mr. Albee’s prequel to “The Zoo Story” would contextualize Peter, Jerry’s would-be “friend,” with similar discoveries about his “happy marriage” to Ann, his wife of fifteen years. They know they love each other and they value the stable and satisfying life they have built with each other. But as this mini-drama progresses, they discover that even though their sexual relationship is as physically pleasing and as steady as both desire, it is not nourishing – something is missing. Is it spontaneity or a lack of brutality or any one of many other possibilities? Or is it simply a result of the inability to fully know the other person? Can we totally know anyone outside of ourselves and can we even know ourselves?
And that brings us to another reason that the Signature production is so timely. Later in the spring season, we are getting a much-anticipated production of one of Albee’s finest and most acclaimed plays, “Three Tall Women.” There are many Albee themes in this fascinating drama, but at its core is the question of how well we can know ourselves. “Three Tall Women” is one of Albee’s late plays, written 25 years after Zoo Story. So, it should not be surprising that this master playwright expanded his first success to show us the fallacies in our perceptions about the self and its relationship to others in his prequel. If you know what is coming in the second act, you cannot help but sit and connect the dots between the story of Peter and Ann and the story of Jerry and Peter. This first act is more intellectual and lacks the punch of the second act, but it also reflects Albee’s later interest in the more abstract and less definable aspects of self and connections with others. Besides, in any drama with quite literal punch, it should come in the second act.
The Signature production is near perfect. The real standout among a very strong cast is Paul Sparks as Jerry. He takes a role that is usually played as a series of aggressions and retreats and plays it as a happy-go-lucky story teller — the kind of person that, if you met them while sitting on bench in Central Park, you would indeed just sit back at enjoy their rants. Sparks loses none of the points in his histrionics as he quite literally dances around the stage. And when he sets out to consummate his relationship with Peter, as only Jerry can, he transforms into an aggressor that is totally consistent with what came before.
This interpretation of Jerry makes Robert Sean Leonard’s portrayal of Peter much more credible. We never wonder why he puts up with this seeming nut case; after all, we are perfectly happy to put up with it. Leonard’s real character is revealed in the first act as he and his spouse slowly realize they may not have exactly the relationship they think they have. He and Katie Finneran as Ann are a well-matched pair, at least as far their acting is concerned. Lila Neugebauer’s direction of this happy couple’s learning exercise is filled with perfectly placed pauses and perplexing moments of reflection. It’s always tough to know who is responsible for the type of performance given by Mr. Sparks, but at the very least, Ms. Neugebauer deserves a lot of credit for exploiting Ms. Sparks remarkable talent.
We rarely get to see the young playwright and the experienced mature craftsman in the same evening. It is rarer still to see both so closely aligned and thoroughly understood.