Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo seems such a complete piece of theater it is surprising to consider that 46 years separates the creation of its first and second act, which are in themselves two separate one-act plays.
A wonderfully acted and polished production at New York City’s Pershing Square Signature Center, directed by Lila Neugebauer, makes the two halves, the play itself, cohere brilliantly.
Albee—most famous for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and who died in 2016, at 88—wrote the first part, Homelife, in 2004, as a companion piece to his debut play, The Zoo Story (1958, first performed in 1959).
That original story features the tense, and ultimately terrible, encounter between languid publishing executive Peter (Robert Sean Leonard) and needling itinerant Jerry (Paul Sparks) on a bench in Central Park. The first half of the play features Jerry at home with his wife, Ann (Katie Finneran). Albee’s pen portraits of the characters are delicious in themselves.
Peter is described as “45. Bland; not heavy; pleasant, if uninteresting looking. Tidy; circumspect. Wears glasses to read.” Ann: “38; his wife. Tall, a bit angular; pleasant-looking, unexceptional.” Jerry is “late thirties; not poorly dressed, but carelessly. What was once a trim and lightly muscled body has begun to go to fat; and while he is no longer handsome, it is evident that he once was. His fall from physical grace should not suggest debauchery; he has, to come closest to it, a great weariness.”
Albee felt, he told The Boston Globe in 2011, that the original play had “one and a half characters. Jerry is a fully developed, three-dimensional character. But Peter is a backboard. He’s not fully developed. Peter had to be more fleshed out.’’
In the latest production, all seems well in Peter and Ann’s middle-class world. The only hint of dysfunction or mystery comes courtesy of the Andrew Lieberman’s stage design. The “home” here is an enclosed, mostly white space, an undecorated comfortable jail with only one way out. It is not domestic in any recognizable way, bar the chair Peter is sitting in, while reading a book for work when Ann comes in to disturb him, to ask him something.
The walls and floor are dotted with a furious mélange of what look like punctuation marks, or the imprints of dead, exploded insects. The same design recurs in Act II, peppered around a set of benches that is supposed to be Central Park, with again only one way in and one way out.
The play opens with both silence and the couple not communicating properly. Beckett springs to mind, and of course Albee himself (Albee talked about Beckett’s influence on him). This couple are in their own worlds, in the same house, lives progressing uneventfully down the same tracks and on different tracks that don’t seem to imperil them both.
The couple reflect on their lives, the ease of their lives, their comfort; there is lackadaisical badinage about the kids, not getting a dog, microwaves. They have two children, two cats, two parakeets, but Ann wonders about her husband’s warm and accepting passivity, and why he never quizzes her on her night-time walks.
Leonard is excellent as the husband unwilling to be stirred, rumpled and benign, and Finneran is just as natural as his first chivvier and disturbance on this Sunday afternoon. What does she have to do to get a response? She gets his attention by remarking she might get her breasts cut off as a preventive measure against cancer.
She says she watches him sleep, temporarily paralyzed in unconsciousness, and wonders how vulnerable he is to “doom” approaching—as it is about to in the park in Act II. It strikes you that Ann portends Jerry in some ways: Inside and soon outside his home, Peter is at the mercy of two destabilizing forces with very different intents at the heart of their gyres.
Peter confesses his own worries; much to his wife’s amusement, he is convinced his circumcised foreskin has returned to his body.
Ann thinks they don’t rely on each other for the things that truly disturb and hurt them. Peter just thinks he has no “jagged edges.”
He still doesn’t know why Ann came in to disturb him earlier, and she doesn’t either. But she confesses her worry that neither of them in themselves are “sufficient” for life. Peter thought they wanted a quiet life, “smooth sailing.” Ann won’t let him off the hook and tells him he’s terrible in bed, that she’d like it if they fucked “like strangers—a regular one-shot deal, like you’ll never see each other again.”
Peter tells a timely story about a college sexual experience, about a girl who said “Hurt me” to him during sex, which he did, leading to a hospital visit for her.
“A little madness, wouldn’t that be good?” Ann says of their marriage. The chaos they imagine is a home suddenly blowing up, the cats eating the parakeets. How funny, they laugh.
Peter heads out to read in the park and encounters crazy-looking Jerry. Quite early on in their encounter, you are screaming internally for Peter to get the hell out of there. We can see what he cannot. Why, you wonder, is Peter so myopic? He is about to pay handsomely for it.
Jerry inveigles Peter into intimacy-sharing conversation. He is the chaos that will enter Jerry’s life, the unwanted chaos, the presence that will mean anything but “smooth sailing,” the very walking embodiment of walls blown out and cats eating parakeets.
Sparks is so good as Jerry that he puts the audience on edge immediately, even as all Jerry is doing is trying to get Peter to talk. We can see his craziness has purpose. We can see he wants to drive Peter to something.
Jerry talks about his sad life: his room in a chaotic boardinghouse, and the comparison is stark next to Peter’s comfortable home. He talks about sex, a horny landlady, and—centrally—a vicious dog that he describes and then embodies transfixingly: “a black monster of a beast: an oversized head, tiny, tiny ears, and eyes... bloodshot, infected, maybe; and a body you can see the ribs through the skin.”
The saga of Jerry and the dog is the central saga of the play. Its conclusion has a near-echo, perhaps, to Ann and Peter’s marriage, or at least a warning the emotionally careless Peter should hear: “The dog and I have attained a compromise, more of a bargain, really. We neither love nor hurt because we do not try to reach each other.”
Leonard’s emotional response to this insane story, told insanely, is beautifully registered: moved, panicked, suddenly afraid. Jerry starts physically jabbing at him, almost off the bench they are sharing, as he tells him what happened at the zoo.
“I’m crazy, you bastard,” Jerry tells Peter.
Yes, the audience thinks as one. We knew that. Peter, get the hell out of there. But Peter does not, and the two men fight for ownership of the bench. You flash back to Ann, her desire for chaos and to stir her husband. Jerry is now stirring him, goading him to action. Here is Peter stirred. It is terrifying. He is terrified. What price passivity? What price action?
Suddenly, to this audience member, the dots and dashes littering the stage made sense. This is the chaos underneath Peter’s everyday that he cannot, will not see. The lack of exits on stage are the lack of exits available to him, again invisible to him.
In the final cataclysm of the play we see how fast and devastatingly humans can be pushed to their limits. Where, Albee leaves you wondering, is the exit?
Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story is at the Signature Theatre until March 18. Book tickets here.