At Home at the Zoo
So said the elderly woman I overheard during intermission in the lobby of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre the other night. She was right: Edward Albee, the man who's been called America's greatest living playwright, has spent five decades showing us that a person's reticence can reveal as much about them as their words. In Albee's The Zoo Story, when Jerry, a loquacious man of the streets, meets Peter, a reserved man of privilege, he pesters Peter with questions. When he learns that Peter and his wife have two children, Jerry quickly determines that they won't be having any more. How does he figure it out? "The way you cross your legs, perhaps; something in the voice. Or maybe I'm just guessing."
The Zoo Story, a one-act play which debuted fifty years ago this month, marked Albee's debut. Now he has coupled The Zoo Story with Homelife, a one-act prequel written just five years ago, in a full length evening called At Home at the Zoo. The result is both rewarding and frustrating: rewarding because it shows that Albee is still doing work that is provocative and daring, but frustrating because the new work seems an unnecessary appendage.
Act one opens in the Upper East Side apartment of publishing executive Peter and his wife Ann. "We should talk," she says, and eventually they do, although it takes a lot of prodding to pull things out of him. We eventually learn that Ann wants to make a deeper connection with her shy husband, that she wants him to be more of an animal. And we learn that part of what's been holding him back is his memory of a long-distant sexual encounter that went horribly wrong. But we don't learn enough about Ann; for all the words she spews out, she remains an enigma, but not an intriguing one like her husband.
In act two, Peter has moved on to a bench in Central Park, where his afternoon of reading has been interrupted rudely by Jerry. Jerry's bombastic manner seems to be an affront to all that Peter holds dear; when Jerry delivers a long, engrossing monologue about his attempts to kill a dog, Peter is shocked to his core. But why is he shocked? When act two stood on its own, it made sense to show Peter disturbed by Jerry's story. But after act one's torrent of vulgaritynot just an occasional curse word, but discussions of Peter's obsession with his circumcision and his wife's onetime urge to cut off her own breastsit's hard to believe that Peter is offended by anything.
Act two has more interesting, poetic language; act one's language is more literal and blunt. That makes sense; Albee's style has changed and developed over the years. But it also means that the two acts don't fit together smoothly, and that the language in act one seems stilted in comparison. Act two is tight and focused, while act one is more rambling (do we really learn anything significant about Ann from the revelation that her mother once contemplated having an affair?). Act one is interesting as an intellectual exercise, but it doesn't seem a satisfying exploration of Peter's backgroundperhaps because none was really needed.
In contrast, act two remains an exciting exploration of what happens when two worlds colliderich and poor, civilized and animal, straight and gay. And it's a thrill to find that its surprise ending is still surprising, drawing gasps from a large portion of the opening night crowd.
At Home at the Zoo benefits from Mary B. Robinson's unfussy direction; the performances seem raw and honest, but there's a sense of concealed tension even in the characters' most open moments. Susan McKey is wonderfully genuine as Ann, while T. Scott Cunningham makes Peter's inner torment vivid. Andrew Polk has a sardonic, deadpan style of delivery that suits the caustic Jerry well. When Jerry verbally assaults Peter in the park, Peter knows he should leave, but he doesn't; he can't keep his eyes off Jerry, and thanks to Polk's performance, one can understand why.
As the woman in the lobby said, with Albee, it's what isn't said that's important. At Home at the Zoo has much in it to admire, but it would have worked better if only Albee had left a lot more unsaid.
At Home at the Zoo runs through April 19, 2009 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $46 to $59, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org, or by visiting the box office.
At Home at the Zoo