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Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 21, 2018

Paul Sparks and Robert Sean Leonard
Photo by Joan Marcus

Director Lila Neugebauer has a flair for finding a clear path through abstract works. A couple of years back, she helmed a triple bill at the Signature Theatre of fine-tuned productions of short plays by Adrienne Kennedy and María Irene Fornés, along with Edward Albee's allegory about aging and death, The Sandbox. Now she's back at the Signature, with a razor-sharp revival of an Albee doubleheader, burdened with the overstuffed title Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story.

In the hands of Ms. Neugebauer and a stellar cast, the two one-acts that Albee himself fused into a single work remain as relevant and psychologically true as they were more than a decade ago when he added Homelife as an immediate prequel to his career-launching The Zoo Story from 1959. Apart from a few dated references (pornographic playing cards, anyone?), At Home at the Zoo can easily be seen as a portrait of the collapse of presumptive middle class white male privilege.

The first words that are spoken, "we should talk," are suggestive of a thousand possible interpretations. Here, they mark the opening salvo against the protective veneer through which our "everyman" man, Peter (Robert Sean Leonard, a master at turning "passivity" into a verb) happily views the world from the comfortable chair in which he has ensconced himself. Peter likes his quiet, orderly life. His wife Ann (Katie Finneran) calls him "circumspect," and he later calls himself "reticent." He is quite content with both descriptors, just as he is with his ability to lose himself in reading his publishing company's specialty textbooks, including the one he is completely absorbed in at the opening, the one he unironically refers to as "the most boring book we've ever published."

in Homelife, the focus is on Ann, a women who has grown weary of being taken for granted and of sharing a safe but anchored life with Peter, where they have chosen to "stay away from the icebergs, avoid the Bermuda Triangle." Once she manages to get his attention (he, of course, is initially oblivious to her "we should talk"), she has a lot to say, starting with the absurdly mundane (andirons, microwaves, spinach) and moving on to her long-unspoken churning thoughts, from the possibility of having her breasts removed to their unexciting sex life. It is one rambling conversation, as Ann's simmering feelings rise to a rapid boil. Now that she finally has Peter's attention, she is going to make the most of the opportunity. For his part, Peter tries to retain a kind of detached composure, even when Ann slaps him. He is trying, in his own fumbling and self-protective way, to be supportive. But mostly what you can discern from Robert Sean Leonard's controlled reactions and facial expressions is that Peter's primary goal is to get past this disconcerting conversation and quickly forget it ever happened.

Homelife ends with enough of a restoration of order to allow Peter to make his escape. He is, he tells Ann, going to head out to the park to read. That's where we find him after an intermission, on a bench in Central Park, the setting for the more well-known The Zoo Story. There his goader-in-chief will be Jerry, a self-described "permanent transient" whose home is "sickening rooming houses." Jerry (a mesmerizing Paul Sparks) has shown up with his own rambling stories in order to shake Peter out of his "enviable innocence."

With his portrayal of Jerry, Mr. Sparks offers up a character who is both a compelling storyteller and a threateningly unpredictable figure. Peter can do little more than listen, both fascinated and frozen in place, too scared to try to escape. In a sense, Jerry has become the crazed dog that is the subject of his longest story. It is only when Jerry finishes telling it that Peter's growing anger at allowing himself to be yanked from his cocoon (by Jerry, but also by Ann) finally gives him the impetus to bare his own teeth. As an audience, we have lost a great deal of our own innocence, so that the violence with which The Zoo Story ends sadly no longer has the power to shock (though, certainly it shocks Peter). Now it is more of a coda to a play that the director, her fine cast, and the design team have shown us to be timeless.

Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story
Through March 18
The Irene Diamond Stage at Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street
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