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Theater Review: Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo at the Signature Theatre

At Home at the Zoo, the last name Albee picked for one of his works, carries as much weight as one can ask of a name.

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Theater Review: Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo at the Signature Theatre
Photo: Joan Marcus

“I’ve been to the zoo.” This curtain-raising line from Edward Albee’s first play, 1959’s The Zoo Story, launched his legendary career. It could also serve as a reasonable response to much of his work over the next five decades, as beasts, wild or caged in privilege, were the playwright’s characters of choice. In The Zoo Story, the untamed Jerry strikes up a conversation with—and then violently strikes—a buttoned-up textbook publisher, Peter. When push inevitably comes to shove for Peter and most of Albee’s well-heeled characters thereafter, the animal within them gets unleashed.

Albee also wrote for four-legged creatures, who can be tender in comparison to their human counterparts. Two leading roles in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Seascape are lizards. And he won his second Tony Award, at the age of 74, for The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?: Its ruminant title character, who makes a brief and shocking appearance at the bloody climax, is revealed by a suburban patriarch on his 50th birthday to be the new love of his life.

The most cultured environment, in Albee’s hands, can become a “gobble, gobble” survival-of-the fittest jungle. In The Zoo Story’s prequel, titled Homelife and written by Albee in 2001, Peter and his wife, Ann, share a climactic fantasy in which a tornado knocks over the birdcage in their Upper East Side apartment, freeing their pet parakeets, which are eaten by their cats, which in turn are eaten by the couple’s daughters, who are then eaten by the couple themselves. Peter asks, “But who would eat us?” To which Anne proffers: “We’d eat ourselves all up. A fearful symmetry.”

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The Zoo Story and Homelife, first paired in 2004 in an unprecedented act of theatrical symmetry, have returned in Lila Neugebauer’s incisive production at the Signature Theatre (they were first performed on a double bill in 2007). Playwrights have often revised or expanded their work, but At Home at the Zoo is the first time that a prequel has been paired with an established original to create a new two-act play. If there’d been just a few years’ break in composition, the resulting unity of style and characterization would count as a remarkable achievement. When one considers the 42-year gap between the composition of Albee’s first one-act and his last, the flow established through parallels in structure and theme qualifies as a near-miracle.

Each act opens with Peter (Robert Sean Leonard), alone and at ease, reading a textbook that he’s publishing. In Homelife, Ann (Katie Finneran) intrudes on his solace, with “We should talk,” which lands on us with as much dread as The Zoo Story’s first line. But Peter is so absorbed in the book that he doesn’t hear his wife. Ann, like The Zoo Story’s Jerry, has a mission: to bridge the distance with Peter or at least get his nose out of that book. He needs it. This is someone who’s recently observed that his penis is retracting.

Neugebauer uses the Irene Diamond Stage’s wide proscenium to mirror her protagonist’s well-bred remoteness in the physical distance between him and his foils. The gap also serves as a reminder of the production mission to bridge the gap between the two one-acts. From a distance of nearly half a century, Albee wrote Homelife to flesh out the role of Peter, who was only a “half-character” in The Zoo Story. The publisher seems much the same in the newer work—he’s a bit of a stick—except for a surprising confession: During a frat hazing, Peter was paired up for sex with a sorority sister who urged him to play rough. Young Peter enjoyed letting loose, but the painful result sent the girl traumatically to the emergency room with an anal fissure. Peter’s been in retreat from his animal side ever since. Now we understand why, as Ann says, he’s “good at making love” but “bad at fucking.”

Ann isn’t interested in pain, but she does want something wilder than their comfortable life. Finneran’s warmly precise performance finds a pinpoint accuracy in Ann’s conflicted desires. For example, she slaps Peter hard in the face and then kisses him. She wants to wake her husband up but without changing things too much: “I’m taking about being an animal—nothing more.” Finneran gives much more, with a full-bodied grace and febrile intelligence.

After their shared fantasy of dog-eat-dog chaos, Ann goes back to cooking, while Peter goes out to read in Central Park, where he sits on a bench and is given an even bigger slap in the face, compliments of Jerry (Paul Sparks). The context provided by Homelife, with some emendations in The Zoo Story, makes Peter seem three quarters of a character in the latter piece. This is an improvement, but like Ann’s mission with Peter, Albee doesn’t try to change things too much. The character still takes a back seat for most of The Zoo Story, serving largely as an audience to his scene partner.

Despite Sparks’s formidable prowess as an alpha dog losing his grip on power, the curtain raiser does the actor no favors. The addition of Ann, whose actions and conversation topics mirror so much of what’s later provided by Jerry, makes the role seem more of a deus ex machina than when The Zoo Story stands on its own. With a first act of heterosexual comfort, and the connection between the men devoid of any sexual component even when tickling comes into play later in the production, the turn to violence seems driven more by thematic than by psychological or primal urges.

Neugebauer emphasizes that abstraction through Andrew Lieberman’s Cy Twombly-esque set, which is dominated by a floor and walls of charcoal squiggles. This is a world of growing disorder through a decidedly literary lens, which aligns the physical production with Peter the publisher. Leonard’s performance, though, isn’t possessed of chaos. There isn’t a glimpse of the young man who enjoyed getting out of his cage. In the actor’s performance, the title At Home at the Zoo doesn’t describe its central character for a moment. Perhaps that’s the point. Even as a participant in something beastly, Leonard’s Peter can’t own it. He’s like that sorority sister, whimpering on a hospital gurney as a victim to someone else’s animal act.

An effective title is a marketable window into a play’s soul. Peter and Jerry, the original name of this pairing, was neither enticing nor insightful. At Home at the Zoo, the last name Albee picked for one of his works, carries as much weight as one can ask of a name. It delivers the work’s key theme by evoking both Ann’s desire to have her home be a comfortable zone for animal behavior, Jerry’s natural milieu, and the possible change in Peter by the show’s finale. By quoting part of each act’s name, it also helps to unify the work’s patchwork construction through a playful symmetry.

The contractually mandated title even puts a rare positive light on the current trend in possessives. Those tend to turn a project into a product, just the latest example of a writer’s brand, as in the imminent Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, and even Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. The inclusion of the creators can stand in the way of our view of the work and its characters. Here, though, with the full title playfully making sense as a complete sentence, Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo serves as a worthy capstone to the playwright’s entire career.

Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo runs at the Signature Theatre Company’s Irene Diamond Stage, 480 W 42nd St, through March 25.

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Watch: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Gets Teaser Trailer

When it rains, it pours.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

When it rains, it pours. Four days after Quentin Tarantino once more laid into John Ford in a piece written for his Beverly Cinema website that saw the filmmaker referring to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as Tie a Yellow Ribbon, and two days after Columbia Pictures released poster art for QT’s ninth feature that wasn’t exactly of the highest order, the studio has released a teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film was announced early last year, with Tarantino describing it as “a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood.”

Set on the eve of the Manson family murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells the story of TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they try to get involved in the film industry. The film also stars Margot Robbie (as Sharon Tate), Al Pacino, the late Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, and Bruce Dern in a part originally intended for the late Burt Reynolds.

See the teaser below:

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Scf8nIJCvs4

Columbia Pictures will release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on July 26.

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Watch the Stranger Things 3 Trailer, and to the Tune of Mötley Crüe and the Who

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.

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Stranger Things 3
Photo: Netflix

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence. On Friday, Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a biopic about Mötley Crüe’s rise to fame, drops on Netflix. Today, the streaming service has released the trailer for the third season of Stranger Things. The clip opens with the strains of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” all the better to underline that the peace and quiet that returned to the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana at the end of the show’s second season is just waiting to be upset again.

Little is known about the plot of the new season, and the trailer keeps things pretty vague, though the Duffer Brothers have suggested that the storyline will take place a year after the events of the last season—duh, we know when “Home Sweet Home” came out—and focus on the main characters’ puberty pangs. That said, according to Reddit sleuths who’ve obsessed over such details as the nuances of the new season’s poster art, it looks like Max and company are going to have to contend with demon rats no doubt released from the Upside Down.

See below for the new season’s trailer:

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEG3bmU_WaI

Stranger Things 3 premieres globally on July 4.

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Who Killed My Father Is Heartbreaking but Prone to Pat Sociological Analysis

Édouard Louis’s latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.

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Who Killed My Father

Author Édouard Louis’s father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when he’s never seen or mostly at the periphery (as in The History of Violence). With his latest, Who Killed My Father, Louis finally turns to directly examining his most important, damaged relationship. Both in his previous books and interviews, Louis has repeatedly acknowledged this broken relationship, largely stemming from the author’s open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louis’s prior works have circled around a number of themes to which he returns here: the French political and working classes, the small-town prejudices that surrounded his upbringing and drove a closeted homosexual boy to escape to more cosmopolitan Paris, and the role of state power in producing social and physical illness.

With Who Killed My Father, Louis invites inevitable comparisons to Abdellah Taïa, another talented French writer who’s also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, Taïa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. Taïa also connects that relationship, his writing, and his experience with the society he left behind in Morocco and the one he found in France. But what distinguishes his writing in, for example, Infidels or Salvation Army from that of Édouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. Taïa incorporates his relationship with his mother, M’Barka, to convey something more meaningful and developed.

Louis begins down this same road before clumsily inserting a political tract at the end of Who Killed My Father that doesn’t knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louis’s relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. It’s clear that he’s exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who don’t possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.

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Louis’s account of his father’s suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his father’s most private acts of kindness, as when the father gives Louis a copy of Titanic for his birthday after trying to convince him to ask for a more “masculine” gift. After Louis realizes that his carefully planned tribute to the pop band Aqua at a family dinner has embarrassed his father, the man reassures Louis that “it’s nothing.” In the book’s first and strongest part, Louis expounds not only on the relationship with his father, but also excavates what might have made his father the man he grew up with. At one point, he recounts finding a photograph of his father in women’s clothes—undoubtedly some adolescent joke, but also inconceivable from the man who insisted to his son that men should never act like girls.

Regrettably, part one ends with a trite conclusion that says everything and nothing at the same time. In part two, the story attempts to braid together all the malignant threads of Louis’s family narrative. Louis recalls igniting a violent outburst between his father and older brother as a result of his mother shaming him for acting too much like a girl (“faggot” is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his mother’s confidence on another family secret, setting loose a new wave of violence. Part two is short and important to moving Who Killed My Father toward some wider evaluation of the questions Louis begins the book with, but it ultimately fails to find its footing by pivoting in part three to an unearned polemic against the political classes.

Who Killed My Father is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate (except in brief moments of tenderness) through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts, but the book at its weakest when trying to ham-handedly force this narrative into some broad theorizing about power and society and structural violence. Part one aligned beautifully with a narrative of meaning more comparable to Taïa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louis’s father’s body through changes in health care coverage. It’s not that the questions Louis ends with aren’t necessary and important ones; it’s that there’s so little threading the narrative together into anything cohesive. What was the point of the first two-thirds of the book? His father was cruel, occasionally loving, but never mind because the state is killing him? The life of the poor is one of abject powerlessness against an unremittingly powerful and callous “ruling class”?

Louis deserves credit for the attempt to tie it all together into some grander commentary on the political class and its ambivalence, but the conclusion is simultaneously glib and condescending. Perhaps Louis didn’t intend it, but the book’s conclusion drains away responsibility for the cruelty and bigotry of those like his father, and patronizes them as with a quick How could we expect any better of the noble, working poor? Is it the state’s or the ruling class’s subjugation of his father’s body that’s somehow also responsible for his inability to sympathize with gays or immigrants? Of course, the poor are subjugated by the rich and Louis has written more meaningfully about the implications of that relationship elsewhere. But in Who Killed My Father, he inadvertently demonstrates that the answer isn’t to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.

Édouard Louis’s Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.

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