“The Zoo Story” was Edward Albee’s first play, and in a way mine too. He wrote it when he was 29, and the short one-act play launched his much-honored career as the American playwright most associated with the Theatre of the Absurd, the first of his more than 30 plays over the next 50 years.
I read it when I was 12 and saw it when I was a teenager, and it was the first play I remember meaning anything to me. Jerry, the man who starts speaking uninvited to a polite Peter who is busy reading on a bench in Central Park, was the kind of New Yorker I knew; he lived in my neighborhood; I saw him striking up conversations with strangers on line for free Shakespeare in the Park. He didn’t respect boundaries, but he drew you in with his boundless energy and wildly eclectic conversation.
That is why it was such a shock to me – striking me almost as an act of vandalism — when in 2007, almost half a century after Albee wrote “The Zoo Story,” I saw a production of something called “Peter and Jerry,” which made “The Zoo Story” the second act of a two act play. The new first act showed Peter with his wife Ann at home in his Upper East Side apartment just before he leaves for the park and his encounter with Jerry.
Albee did this to “flesh out Peter fully and make the subsequent balance better,” he wrote at the time, an explanation that the Signature Theater is distributing in the lobby, during its current revival of what is now entitled “Edward Albee’s At Home At The Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story.”
The yoking together of these two separate one-acts into a single play still doesn’t work for me. Why did Peter need to be fleshed out; why the need for balance? Peter represents the comfortably conformist, empty American Everyman that the isolated outcast Jerry (and Albee?) rebels against, and envies. There is an adolescent fury to “The Zoo Story” that doesn’t belong paired with the more sedate, oblique and adult “Homelife,” which is what the first act is now called. Even taken on its own merits, “Homelife” is decidedly second-tier Albee, a dry, oddly paced if witty look at a privileged, over-educated couple who are disconnected from one another and from themselves. They are the type of characters he captured much more exquisitely in such plays as “A Delicate Balance.”
Yet director Lila Neugebauer makes as good a case as seems possible for this play, thanks to the casting of Robert Sean Leonard as Peter and Katie Finneran as Ann.
“We should talk,’ Ann tells Peter, the first line of Homelife, but he’s too busy reading to hear her. Eventually, they do talk. Like the random lines scribbled on the white walls of Andrew Lieberman’s spare set, their words seem random, unstructured, idle chat, until they reveal a husband and wife living a life at odds. Leonard’s genial demeanor manages to make Peter’s desire for a marriage that’s like a “smooth voyage on a safe ship” seem reasonable. Finneran, who pulls off comedy with aplomb (as attested by her Tony Awards for “Promises, Promises” and “Noises Off”), has the Jack Lemmon knack of being equally persuasive in dramas (The Heiress, The Iceman Cometh.) She brings some life to a woman who, unlike her husband, wants “a little disorder around here, a little… chaos” – a little passion? There’s some irony in realizing that “Homelife” doesn’t so much “flesh out” Peter as contrast his continuing emptiness against a second more vibrant character.
“I’ve been to the zoo,” Jerry tells Peter, the first line of “The Zoo Story,” but Peter is busy reading. Jerry, however, is insistent. It may not be entirely plausible that somebody like Peter would engage so readily with somebody like Jerry and continue to do so through all of Jerry’s insults, antics and confessions. (That’s why it’s called absurdist.) But the audience’s engagement at the Signature certainly makes sense, and it’s thanks to Jerry’s portrayal by Paul Sparks, who is spectacular. He moves sideways like a crab, gets down on all four and barks like a dog: He’s animal to Peter’s automaton, but they are both also credibly human beings.
I fight the notion that Albee, who died in 2016 at the age of 88, expanded “The Zoo Story” in order to make his youthful in-your-face hit more presentable to the kind of middle aged, middle class people who now make up most of the theatergoing public. But, if “The Zoo Story” doesn’t seem to mean as much to me as it did in my adolescence, it still stands out; its vigor and humor and rage and sadness have not been destroyed by time, nor by its creator.
“Edward Albee’s At Home At The Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story.”
By Edward Albee
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
Set designer: Andrew Lieberman
Costume designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Sound designer: Bray Poor
Cast: Katie Finneran, Robert Sean Leonard, Paul Sparks
Running time: Two hours, including intermission
Scheduled to run through March 25, 2018.