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).
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.
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?
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)
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