Glass is thrilled by the Edward Albee revival at Signature Theatre, New York

THE great American playwright Edward Albee came to fame at the age of 32 with his first play, The Zoo Story. Opening off-Broadway in 1960, the one-act, two-actor play made Albee something of a household name overnight, and was staged for over a year. The play’s narrative revolves around Peter, a pleasant-but-dull textbook publisher and family man, and Jerry, a verbose and menacing stranger with whom Peter has a momentous encounter one Sunday afternoon in the park. The psychological and physical mayhem that flows through their interaction ultimately ends fatally – and, no, the audience didn’t see it coming.

(l-r) Paul Sparks & Robert Sean Leonard in Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo - Homelife & The Zoo Story at Signature TheatrePaul Sparks and Robert Sean Leonard in Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo:
Homelife & The Zoo Story at Signature Theatre. Photograph: Joan Marcus

Even though The Zoo Story was remarkably well-received, and continues to be held up as a theatrical masterpiece, Albee decided nearly 50 years later to revise the story, given his dissatisfaction with the character of Peter. In order to bulk up this character’s portrayal, Albee wrote a one-act prequel, titled Homelife. Following this addition, Albee requested that the two narratives be performed as a single play. The Signature Theatre, which has admirably always placed playwrights at the centre of its mission, and made Albee its third Playwright-in-Residence during the 1993-94 Season, therefore followed instructions during its recent revival of the play, directed by Lila Neugebauer.

Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story, to name the production’s full title, is psychologically astute and dazzlingly clear in its structure and dialogue. Whereas the second acts focuses on Peter and Jerry, played by Robert Sean Leonard and Paul Sparks respectively, the first act centres on a conversation between Peter and his wife Ann (Katie Finneran). In line with Albee’s long-standing preoccupation with bashing the bourgeois, we learn pretty quickly about the meaningless, middle-class existence of Peter and Ann.

The scene is set in the couple’s Upper East Side apartment – the wonderfully sparse set is by Andrew Lierberman, who does so much with just one green armchair and expansive white walls that display an abstract scrawl. Ann playfully confronts her husband with her dissatisfaction early on, expressing her unhappiness with the “smooth voyage on a safe ship”. Peter’s inability to comprehend exactly, content to remain occupied by the book he is reading, and annoyingly uncomplicated in his responses, is set in contrast with the desperate cries from Ann, who begs for animalistic passion in their life together.

Katie Finneran & Robert Sean Leonard in Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo - Homelife & The Zoo Story at Signature Theatre.Katie Finneran and Robert Sean Leonard in Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story at Signature Theatre. Photograph: Joan Marcus

During the second act, the cumbersomeness of this “smooth voyage”, which Peter embodies to a tee, is teased out through the seemingly random questions that Jerry asks him. As Jerry carries out his cross-examination, he ends up dominating the story with details of his own life: although presented as a poverty-stricken, scruffy, crazy person, Jerry is completely in touch with the visceral nature of the world and represents the vitality that Ann so craves, and which Peter is unable to access. Jerry’s vitality soon turns to violence, but the point is that he has a desire to fight for something.

Given the reconstruction of the play, one wonders whether the prequel adds a significant amount to the main act. Perhaps it is not essential: while we do get to learn more about Peter, and the way in which he exists in the world, the real revelations occur during the second half. Still, all three actors give excellent performances, with Sparks standing out like a true star for his interpretation of the derisive Jerry, and one feels indebted to the Signature for making such a fully-formed production available.

Robert Sean Leonard in Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo - Homelife & The Zoo Story at Signature Theatre.Robert Sean Leonard in Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo: Homelife and The Zoo Story at Signature Theatre. Photograph: Joan Marcus

by Derby Jones

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