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

I thought we made a decision, must have made one, that what we wanted was a smooth voyage on a safe ship, a view of porpoises now and then, a gentle swell, bright clouds way off, a sense that it was a. . . familiar voyage, though we'd never taken it before — a pleasant journey, all the way through. And that's what we're having. . . Isn't it?
— Peter, in Homeland after his Wife Ann sends their "safe" marital ship into more cloudy territory with her insistent "we should talk."

I went to the zoo to find out more about the way people exist with animals, and the way animals exist with each other, and with people too. It probably wasn't a fair test, what with everyone separated by bars from everyone else, the animals for the most part from each other, and always the people from the animals. But, if it's a zoo, that's the way it is.
— Jerry, who initiates his park bench conversation with Peter by declaring "I went to the zoo today" but goes off in other directions, including a lengthy, symbolism filled story about his rooming house landlady's dog.
Katie Finneran and Robert Sean Leonard
When Edward Albee's The Zoo Story debuted it was paired with Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, an apt pairing since Albee regarded Beckett as his major influence. It became an enduring "hit" and, as in its first presentaton, was always part of an evening of two one-acts. Its most frequent partners were another Albee play, The American Dream, and The Sand Box. Williamstown Theater Festival's marriage of The Zoo Story and The Dumb Waiter was a particularly organic match since Pinter burst onto the theatrical scene at the same time as Albee and he too walked in Beckett's footsteps.

Thanks to Albee's provocative insight into the darker passions that lie beneath the human veneer of civility and his metaphoric indictment of middle class complacency, The Zoo Story continued its well-received life while its author was busy turning out a body of work that, while not always lauded, included three Pulitzers (A Delicate Balance in 1966, Seascape in 1975 and Three Tall Women in 1991) and a Tony (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1961).

Eventually, however, something about his first-born began to nag at Mr. Albee. As he put it, "It seemed to be not quite a two-character play — Jerry being so much longer a role — but more one-and-a-half character one." Given that the play worked well enough in its present format, he put off doing anything about it until he came up with the idea of a first act to flesh out Peter's character and make the subsequent balance better. And so a new two-act play was born, with the The Zoo Story following a prequel named Homelife in which we see Peter at home with his wife Ann, before heading for that park bench meeting with Jerry.

Mr. Albee was happy enough with this expanded The Zoo Story , now called Peter & Jerry. But with his usual cool sense of humor he saw his title bringing to mind the ice cream moguls Ben & Jerry. And so, Peter & Jerry became At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story. And it is with a superbly cast, smartly directed production of this version that the Pershing Square Signature Center is honoring Edward Albee's legacy. I think if Mr. Albee were still with us, he'd be pleased.

Homelife, or Act 1 of At Home at the Zoo, can be seen as a stand-alone marital drama, with thematic links to The Goat, or, Who Is Sylvia?, and touches of a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf without another dysfunctional couple or the heavy drinking. it gives viewers a chance to see more of Peter (Robert Sean Leonard) and also meet one member of his family, his wife Ann (Katie Finneran).

The parallels between the two plays are established by beginning each with Peter deeply immersed in his book — at his apartment in the added prequel, and in a quiet corner of nearby Central Park in the original play that's now the second act. Peter at first tries to ignore the aggressively intrusive "I've just been to the zoo" conversation opener with which The Zoo Story's Jerry (Paul Sparks) interrupts his reading; nor does he instantly react or even seem to hear his wife's attempt to get his attention with her "We should talk." As Jerry's opening sentence brings an aura of menace to the tranquil corner of the park, so Ann's first sentence signals that all is not all that trouble free with them.

In both plays a lot depends on the actors' ability to capture the subtle intricacies with which people communicate. While Robert Sean Leonard's Peter is a sounding board character, just watch his facial expression and body language, and you'll see a man of many moods. He's obtuse yet sympathetic, instinctively resists the emotional undercurrents stirred up by the other characters.

Katie Finneran's Ann is obviously more ready to steer the marital ship into less calm waters. She admits that she's hankered after "a little. . .chaos." This actually brings Peter to full attention and even a fair bit of enthusiasm for bringing some madness into their well ordered life. Yet, for all the amusing back and forth, neither is likely to really trade what's predictable and comfortable for something more primal.

And so Peter picks up his book and heads for his favorite corner of Central Park.

Robert Sean Leonard and Paul Sparks
While Homecoming does flesh out the picture of Peter as a man symbolizing the complacent, upper middle class, seeing it doesn't really diminish The Zoo Story strength. It's only length (about 50 minutes) that always required a companion piece for a full theatrical evening. So why not one that does provide that extra bang for the ticket buyer's buxk and also gives us some additional insight into Peter's life and psyche?

Amusing as Homecoming is, the sizzle still belongs to The Zoo Story with its friendly yet menacing drifter to lead his and Peter's interchange to its shocking finale. And with the amazing Paul Sparks as Jerry, is quite a sizzler.

With the divide between high income people living in upscale homes and those living on the street or in seedy rooming houses greater than ever, the play's class issues are depressingly timely.

A word about the look of the production. Ms. Neugebauer and scenic designer Andrew Lieberman have made some interesting choices. While some previous designers have opted to create a realistically furnished setting for the first act, Peter and Ann's living room on the Diamond stage features just a chair with hassock and a reading lamp. No rugs, no windows or walls with pictures. This takes some getting used to, but it struck me as doubly effective: First, the underfurnished apartment underscores the playwright's pointing his finger at the emptiness of the occupants' lives. Secondly, this set-up intensifies the connection between both plays.

While the apartment scene offers no more props than the one that follows, Mr. Lieberman has expanded the usual two benches to create more of the look of the curved sitting areas in Central Park.

Two benches or four, a single chair or several as well as a couch. . . a visit to this Peter and Jerry (and Ann) is highly recommended.

For more about Edward Albee's life, style and links to his plays reviewed at Curtainup, see the Albee section of our Playwrights Album.

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Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
Cast: Katie Finneran (Ann), Robert Sean Leonard (Peter), Paul Sparks (Jerry)
Scenery: Andrew Lieberman
Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
Lighting: Japhy Weideman
Sound: Bray Poor
Fight direction: UnkleDave's Fight House
Stage Manager: David Lurie-Perret
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission
Signature Theatre's Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center 480 West 42nd Street
From 1/30/18; pening 2/21/18; closing 3/11/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 2/14/18 press preview

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