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

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

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.”

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.”

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.

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.