At Home at the Zoo synthesizes Albee's works into play on unhappy home life
Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story, monstrously long title aside, is something of an odd duck in the canon of American drama and in the work of Edward Albee himself. While Albee is, by all means, deservedly placed alongside names such as Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, it would be incredibly difficult to argue that his plays fit into the form of American realism.
Albee’s carefully chosen language juxtaposed against absurdist elements and deeply humorous bits of minutiae are all part of telling true stories quite unnaturally. If there was something the late playwright understood, it was that having everything could very well be a cover-up for having nothing at all.
Smooth in its pacing, but jagged where it needs to be, this Signature Theatre Company production is helmed by Lila Neugebauer, who makes use of the company’s Irene Diamond Stage like she owns it. The set, an off-white room covered in childlike scrawls, was designed by Andrew Lieberman, a veteran of the acclaimed minimalist Dutch theatre company Toneelgroep Amsterdam.
It is easy to imagine the bored housewife Ann, played by the incomparable Katie Finneran, taking a thin graphite pencil and making directionless scribbles on the wall after some perfunctory love-making with Robert Sean Leonard’s character, Peter.
Neugebauer, thankfully, is not after some kind of reconceptualized abstraction of Albee’s work, but tries to get down to the bones of what Albee is trying to say — and there is quite a bit of that to go around.
The first act, Homelife, is one of Albee’s later, and strangely calmer, plays. It does not carry the passive-aggressive vitriol of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or the bizarre, bestiality-infused existential dread of The Goat or Who is Sylvia?
There are beasts aplenty, though, and there are two members of that strange tribe of creatures known as the American upper-middle class. Peter is a publisher of textbooks and Ann, by all accounts, is his satisfied yet completely bored wife. She is also ready to quit “love-making” with her all-too-content husband and get on with a physical relationship more resembling that of two strangers who will never see each other again.
Ann is not a woman who dreams about leaving her husband, children, cats and parakeets. Instead, she is someone who wants a little more excitement in a drab, completely stable marriage.
Peter, by all accounts, is someone who does not see a point in indulging in chaotic desires, though he is someone who wants to keep his wife happy, as unsure as he is on how to do that. So when he reveals the story of a college sexual escapade gone awry, it is no wonder the audience laughs at Ann’s gleeful, excited shock by its ending.
That little anecdote from Peter seems to encapsulate just what Albee appears to think about the American middle class. Excitement is a foreign, scary concept when one’s life is perfectly fine just as it is, especially when the one time there is excitement, there is also a fair amount of blood.
The second act, The Zoo Story, is Albee’s first work and one that was seen as confusing and disjointed, despite frequent revivals and later critical favor.
Albee’s dramaturgical stitching is what brought the two works together as At Home at the Zoo, mostly out of the playwright’s personal itching that Peter was not as developed a character as he could possibly be.
The new production seems to prove Albee right, as the audience develops a better understanding of Peter following the events of Homelife.
The Zoo Story, featuring the wonderfully mongrel-like Paul Sparks as Jerry, takes place in Central Park where Peter is trying to read on his usual bench, peaceful and content, until Jerry walks in and declares that he has been to the zoo.
It is never quite mentioned what happened at the zoo because the zoo that matters is the one that Peter and Jerry are in, whether they like it or not.
Jerry comes as some sort of cosmic test for Peter, testing boundaries and breaking open the fault lines of his timid existence.
Of course, this is an Albee play, so even Peter’s tough love is not as innocent as it seems. Most importantly, Peter is not ready for his world to be exciting, not in the least.
He quite likes his cage, albeit a fancy one on East 74th Street with parakeets, a wife and children, but a cage nonetheless. All it takes is someone like Jerry, who looks like he belongs inside a cage, to rattle it.