By Edward Albee; Directed by Lila Neugebauer
Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 3.18.18
Signature Theatre Center, 480 West 42nd Street
by Keith Paul Medelis on 2.21.18
Robert Sean Leonard and Paul Sparks in At Home at the Zoo. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: As part of the Legacy Program to honor the work of renowned Signature Theatre playwrights, At Home at the Zoo showcases the remarkable talent of Edward Albee.
Two men meet on a bench in Central Park: Peter (Robert Sean Leonard) and Jerry (Paul Sparks). Peter is your typical Upper East Sider, reading on a pleasant day. Jerry is the one we’re taught to avoid eye contact with on the train. Their meeting might normally be brief, but not in an Albee play. Here they seem to need something from each other, though that’s never quite clear. Until it is. Through some magnificent writing that throws us through dramatic loops on a shaky carnival ride, Jerry talks about befriending a dog to tell us about how humans should live with animals, particularly some rather vicious ones with ravaging, red erections.
Cut to our first act, a prologue to this scene in the park. We’re in Peter’s fancy apartment, reading again. His wife Ann (Katie Finneran) has come to talk with him about something—but can’t seem to remember what. Is it about her dream of having her breasts taken off? Is it about his concern that his foreskin may be growing back? Maybe if she goes back out of the room and comes back in she’ll remember. Their witty game continues with the couple, trapped and loveless in their modest palace, showing no clear passion or intent except for Peter’s publishing of textbooks that he can’t seem to stop peering away from—a proof copy of something boring certainly.
As a way of honoring Albee’s legacy, there’s no better play than At Home at the Zoo. Famously, Albee has mashed his first play written in 1958, The Zoo Story, with one of his last plays produced in 2007, Homelife. Together they comprise this new play; the Albee estate prefers they now always accompany one another. As a study of a master, they work masterfully. At the beginning of his career Albee is writing with verbose grandiosity, erratic and invasive. Toward the end of his life, his writing relies heavily on dignified word play; sparse and cutting, the tennis match of words is carefully selected to hit at precisely the right moment. A lesser playwright would be criticized for such a jarring language shift between acts. Here we treat it with reverence.
But thematically, both acts are Albee’s specialty. Plagued by deeply troubling questions of intimacy throughout his career, both acts prod at relationships, filling them like a petri dish to be poked and studied and manipulated. We are human animals, and Albee’s safari takes place at home—at the zoo if you will. Andrew Lieberman’s set design emulates Albee’s later-career scarcity in all-white grandeur, edges frayed with improvisational claw marks also emulated through Bray Poor’s minimalistic jazz phrases that frame each act. Something or someone has repeatedly tried to escape here; the cage-like walls contain these Upper East Side animals, now and always.
In a choice surely not of director Lila Neugebauer’s, At Home at the Zoo commands Signature’s largest stage, the Diamond. Lieberman smartly pushes all of the first act's confining action downstage, but opens up the entire space for the second act, adding several benches to the traditional (almost Beckettian) set. It’s a choice that Neugebauer makes knowing that she’ll upset the purists. It leads to a rather expansive, oddly asymmetric Zoo Story, where the stakes aren’t high enough. When the two men fight over a bench, you almost scream to the stage, “just move to any of the others!” Or to anywhere else in Central Park, for that matter. Albee’s script wants Peter and Jerry more trapped than Neugebauer’s staging suggests, and the end feels unearned. And given this staging's decidedly contemporary feel, it's hard to imagine how Peter would get away with such things in a world with cell phones and their ubiquitous cameras.
Though on that note, the world of the social and of Trump’s uniquely cruel America would be quite the thrilling Albee concoction. We’ll have to be left with this, and many more re-stagings of his work, after his death just two years ago. “It’s not all right to want to love somebody and not hurt them?” Peter asks his wife in an incredulously sincere moment in Home Life. This encapsulates Albee’s own greatest fear, in all of its profoundly confusing glory. When we are at home, we are all at the zoo.
(Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story plays at the Signature Theatre Center, 480 West 42nd Street, through March 18, 2018. The running time is 2 hours with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2 and 7:30. Tickets are $30 through March 11 (starting March 13 tickets are $40-$55) and are available at signaturetheatre.org or by calling 212-244-7529.)
At Home at the Zoo is by Edward Albee. Directed by Lila Neugebauer. Scenic Design by Andrew Lieberman. Costume Design by Kaye Voyce. Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman. Sound Design by Bray Poor. Production Stage Manager is David Lurie-Perret.
The cast is Katie Finneran, Robert Sean Leonard, and Paul Sparks.