Paul Sparks and Robert Sean Leonard in ‘Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Samuel L. Leiter
First, some background: in 2004, nearly half a century after 1958, when Edward Albee wrote The Zoo Story, it was coupled with a prequel called Homelife as part of a two-act play called Peter and Jerry. It used that title when it had its New York premiere three years later but became At Home at the Zoo for a 2009 production elsewhere. It now has the longer title being used for its revival at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
If you’re familiar with The Zoo Story, perhaps the best-known one-act in American theatre history, you know that it’s a brilliantly calibrated, often bitingly funny tragicomedy about a mild-mannered publisher named Peter (Robert Sean Leonard), a married man with kids and pets, reading at his regular Central Park bench. Suddenly, he’s accosted by a disturbed loser named Jerry (Paul Sparks), who says, “I’ve been to the zoo,” before dominating a one-sided conversation with his passively polite but fearful victim.
Peter’s domestic “zoo” is contrasted with the horrendous one of Jerry’s life, particularly notable in a lengthy monologue about his failure to forge a relationship with his landlady’s vicious dog. Jerry becomes increasingly threatening until the play comes to a surprising, violent conclusion.
Some of the dialogue has been updated but this makes other things, like the references to pornographic playing cards, seem almost anachronistic. And, in comparison with today’s common stage profanity, Jerry’s language sounds unexpectedly tame: the new play has half-a-dozen “f” words; the old one, none.
Despite the play’s reputation, Albee came to feel he’d insufficiently dramatized Peter, so he wrote Homelife to make him three-dimensional. Homelife, which serves as Act One, is set in Peter’s home, where, instead of reading a novel on a bench, he’s in an armchair, engaged in one of the textbooks he publishes.
Homelife, essentially an analogue of The Zoo Story, is one of the best one-acts of the young century; I’m not sure, though, that it greatly illuminates what happens in the older play, where Peter’s enigmatic character can be viewed as one of its strengths.
In Homelife, just as Jerry distracts Peter so does Peter’s loving wife, Ann (Katie Finneran)—they’re the anti-George and Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)—when she interrupts his reading, saying, “We should talk.” An insistent presence, Ann seeks to communicate more deeply with her placid spouse, probing him with questions to which he responds with unflagging courtesy. Gradually, they reveal personal fears, especially intimate ones: he has penis issues, she has breast ones.
For all their mutual affection, Ann is both satisfied and dissatisfied with their sex life, feeling something is missing, something animal, perhaps even dangerous. Peter understands but is incapable of doing anything about it.
The use of monologues allows Ann and Peter to replicate some of Jerry’s linguistic virtuosity, with similarly shocking images. Peter, for instance, details a sexual experience he had that has made him cautious about ever hurting his wife, explaining why he can never give her the “bad sex” she craves.
There’s a controlled edginess to their coolly sensitive, barely confrontational discourse; its impact is dependent on vivid language and first-rate acting. Finneran, barefoot in a fitted white shift (Kaye Voyce did the costumes), offers passionate curiosity and grace, while Leonard’s helplessness is totally sincere.
In The Zoo Story, Sparks, pacing about on the ground and benches, captures Jerry’s angst and anger with scary friendliness as he weaves his suicidal web. It’s the more colorful role but Leonard, offering an acting lesson in how to listen, is equally compelling; watch how subtly he projects bewilderment and anxiety before his inner animal pounces.
Director Lila Neugebauer’s ability to draw such fine performances continues her expert work on other recent projects, like Miles for Mary. But unless you’ve never seen “The Zoo Story,” there’s little to differentiate it from other well-acted versions, apart from Andrew Lieberman’s unusual setting.
His abstract design (lit by Japhy Weideman) on the too-wide stage is a cold, neutral, open space fronting imposing off-white walls, using only a single exit in each act, and painted with Twombley-like scribbles that hint at some internal chaos. It creates an expansive world that works against the intimacy of each environment. In Homelife, the set hints at a frigidity in Peter and Ann’s relationship that exceeds what Albee seems to be implying. In The Zoo Story, having five benches in a semicircle, instead of the usual one, eliminates any sense of isolation from Peter’s nook.
The Albee estate insists that both plays must be done in tandem in any professional production. Too bad. I still prefer my Zoo Story by itself.
Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story
Pershing Square Signature Center/Irene Diamond Theatre
480 W. 42nd Street, New York City
Through March 25
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).