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Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story

A brilliant reprise of an early Albee play as part of a more recent double bill.

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Robert Sean Leonard and Katie Finneran in a scene from Edward Albee’s “At Home at the Zoo: Homelife” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story stunned the theater world back in the late fifties with its stylized vision of an anonymous encounter in Central Park, an encounter which ended in a bizarre, unexpected act of violence.  It was a natural continuation of the work of Beckett and Ionesco whose avant-garde works—Waiting for Godot, The Bald Soprano, etc.—gave world drama a new way of looking at life, just as Picasso and other artists pictured the world in unexpected ways.

According to Albee, The Zoo Story was always half of a play, the first part gradually taking form in his very active brain.  He wanted to give a backstory to one of the characters in Zoo Story and succeeded years later in 2004.

Homelife, the opening act, is a sly study of domesticity, the marriage of Ann (Katie Finneran, amusing, strong and smart) and Peter (Robert Sean Leonard, giving an assured performance as a somewhat hyper-controlled personality).

Robert Sean Leonard and Katie Finneran in a scene from Edward Albee’s “At Home at the Zoo: Homelife” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Their marriage appears to be comfortable if a bit predictable:  He reads too much and she sometimes can’t get through to him.  They do enjoy each other’s company and their banter involves fireplace andirons, food, breast cancer and, eventually, Peter’s genitalia, a discussion that is as real as it is funny.  These are two upper-middle-class people who obviously love each other and enjoy poking at each other psychologically.   There are hints of darkness now and then; this is Edward Albee, the master of the understated.

However, some need to get away brings Peter to his favorite quiet place in Central Park on this Sunday afternoon where he meets loquacious Jerry (Paul Sparks, the personification of a ego attached to a fading machismo).

“I’ve been to the zoo,” says Jerry only to face the same self-involvement that Ann faced.  Peter finally acknowledges Jerry and reluctantly gets involved in small talk about directions.  Slowly Jerry gets under Peter’s skin, almost imperceptively going from small talk—families, neighborhoods—to annoying judgments that lead to defensiveness 

Paul Sparks and Robert Sean Leonard in a scene from Edward Albee’s “At Home at the Zoo: The Zoo Story” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Jerry pretty much monopolizes his conversation with Peter, telling him a long, involved story of his rooming house, an excitable dog, a tenant who’s always crying and a “black queen” with odd bathroom habits.  Slowly the tension builds.  Jerry invades Peter’s space, poking him and pushing him to the brink, leading to a violent climax that still surprises audiences used to violence.

Albee’s brilliance is how perfectly normal conversation can be weighted and full of meaning barely implied by the actual words.

Lila Neugebauer has directed these two one-acts to bring out their naturalism. In the past, The Zoo Story was usually performed with an odd, surreal quality.  Neugebauer has given the conversations a flow that reveals this play to be about people, not walking symbols, a lesson Albee had thoroughly absorbed by the time he wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  

Robert Sean Leonard and Paul Sparks in a scene from Edward Albee’s “At Home at the Zoo: The Zoo Story” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Andrew Lieberman’s set made the most of simplicity.  Gigantic moveable white flats, sprinkled with wiggly, grasslike lines gave the action a feeling of openness, with bits of furniture and a line of park benches defining the locations.  Kaye Voyce’s casual costumes also implied character.  Japhy Weideman’s lighting was perfection, particularly in the Central Park scene.

Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo:  Homelife & The Zoo Story (extended through March 25, 2018)

Signature Theatre

The Pershing Square Signature Center

The Irene Diamond Stage, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org

Running time:  two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission

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Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (262 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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