14 March 2018

'At Home at the Zoo'

[Because of the amount and quality of the critical coverage, my report on Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo runs longer than usual.  ~Rick]

Once upon a time, many years ago, a clever young man wrote a small play.  It was really his first play, though he’d tried his hand at writing plays before.  This was the first one he’d finished and liked; he was proud of his little play.  Unhappily, theaters in his homeland turned the young man away when he tried to persuade them to produce his play.  It was just too . . . unusual for them and they didn’t think their audiences would like it.  It was too European, they thought.

So the young man, who was not only clever but very determined, sent his play to Europe, where plays like his were, indeed, more welcome.  Lo and behold! a theater in Germany accepted the clever young man’s little play.  They put it with another unusual play, this one by an Irish writer, and presented them together in German for their audience—and the playgoers and critics in the foreign land loved it and wrote very good reviews of it.  The world, it seems, had discovered a new, young playwright with new, young ideas about theater and playwriting.

Now theaters at home began to clamor to present the clever young man’s little play and so the clever young playwright brought his little play home and it became a big success on the stages of his homeland.  He wrote more plays, little ones at first, like his first one, and then bigger, more ambitious ones, and he began winning awards and prizes and recognition.  But all the while, he felt bereft somehow.  His first little play seemed unfinished.  He needed to say more, but he didn’t know what exactly or how to do it.

The clever young man, now becoming a very successful and admired playwright in his homeland, went on with his writing career and created more and more successful plays.  But the missing part of his first little play continued to perturb him.  In the back of his mind, the clever young man kept feeling he’d left something out of his little play and, despite his growing success as a dramatist, it weighed on his mind.

Finally, almost 50 years after writing his little play, the clever man—who was now no longer young but an eminence of the theater community of his homeland—sat down and wrote another little play which he put together with his first one.  He gave the two plays together a new, long title with his name in it, and said it was now a new two-act play that must be performed as a single play.  Now, of course, no one in his homeland would deny the clever, famous man his desires, and so theaters around the country agreed to produce the writer’s “new” play . . . and the clever, famous playwright got his wish.  Not too many years later, the famous writer died and everyone was very sad.  But he left behind a treasure of wonderful plays . . . and his first, clever, little play, now part of a bigger one with a long title that looked very important on the cover of a program.

And that, children, is how The Zoo Story became Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story.  Let’s see if all this mishegoss was worth it.

Edward Albee (1928-2016) wrote The Zoo Story in 1958; it was his first play to be completed and produced.  As I said in my fairy tale account, producers in New York City rejected Zoo Story so the one-act play, after a circuitous and unlikely route (recounted in the preface to the 1960s paperback edition of The American Dream and The Zoo Story), was staged in German at the  Schiller Theater Werkstatt in West Berlin in 1959 on a double bill with the German première of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.  (The German translation of Albee’s play, by Swiss actor Pinkas Braun, was called Die Zoogeschichte.  The Berlin production was directed by Walter Henn with Kurt Buecheler as Peter and Thomas Holtzmann as Jerry.)  It débuted on 28 September as part of the Berlin Arts Festival and won the Berlin Festival Award; Berlin critics and audiences both responded with enthusiasm.  The play went on tour to a dozen other German cities and, before any of his works showed up on U.S. stages, news of Albee’s success abroad reached home.  (The Zoo Story was produced on German television in 1963.)

Zoo Story premièred in the U.S. at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village on 14 January 1960 with William Daniels as Peter and George Maharis as Jerry under the direction of Milton Katselas.  Paired again with the Beckett play, it ran for 582 performances, closing on 21 May 1961, and Albee and Beckett shared the 1960 OBIE Award for Distinguished Play; Daniels won the 1960 OBIE and Clarence Derwent Awards and Maharis, the 1960 OBIE and Theatre World Awards for their performances. 

Zoo Story  was staged again at the Cherry Lane Theatre in the Village in March 1962 as part of the Theatre of the Absurd series produced by Richard Barr (who had also produced the Provincetown Playhouse première) and Clinton Wilder, this time paired with Albee’s The American Dream (written around 1960).  This production was staged by Alan Schneider (who would later become known as an interpreter of the plays of Samuel Beckett, including the U.S. début of Waiting for Godot) and starred David Hooks as Peter and Jered Barclay as Jerry. 

The two plays were staged again in the same production in September 1962 and remounted (this time with The Dutchman by LeRoi Jones—later known as Amiri Baraka) at the Cherry Lane in November 1964 through February 1965 under Edward Parone’s direction with Pirie MacDonald taking over the role of Peter.  (The producers now were Barr, Wilder, and playwright Albee himself, having formed a company called Albarwild, which became a significant force in Off-Broadway and avant-garde theater in New York.)  Schneider again staged The Zoo Story (with Krapp’s Last Tape again) in June-October 1965 at the Cherry Lane, with George Bartenieff as Peter and Ben Piazza as Jerry.

In October 1968, as part of an Albee-Beckett series, Zoo Story and Krapp’s Last Tape were presented on Broadway at the Billy Rose Theatre, with the Albee one-act directed again by Schneider and Ben Piazza playing Jerry; Donald Davis played Peter.  As a single one-act, The Zoo Story, immensely popular among high school, college, community, and small rep theaters, as Albee wrote in 2007, “had gone on to have—at this writing—49 years of frequent performance and general acceptance.”

The playwright was very pleased with how The Zoo Story turned out: “‘The Zoo Story’ is a good play,” Albee told the Boston Globe in 2011.  “It’s a play that I’m very happy I wrote.”  He’s disclosed, however, that “it nagged me just a bit that it seemed to be not quite a two-character play—Jerry being so much longer a role—but more a one-and-a-half-character one.”  Apparently he kept thinking about this until, in 2001, he decided, “There’s a first act here somewhere which will flesh out Peter fully and make the subsequent balance better.”  So Albee—who’s the winner of three Pulitzer Prizes (A Delicate Balance, 1967; Seascape, 1975; Three Tall Women, 1994), two best play Tonys (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1963; The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, 2002), a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2005, and the National Medal of Arts in 1996—sat down and wrote Homelife in two weeks; it became the first act of a new play with The Zoo Story comprising its second act.

There has never been a feature film adaptation of The Zoo Story (in any language) that I have been able to discover, but, in addition to the German TV airing in 1963, several television adaptations have been aired—though none in the United States.  The only English-language version was on Britain’s Independent Television (ITV) in 1961; other broadcasts have been in Sweden in 1964 and 1980, France in 1968, and Greece in 2016.  There’s an LP from the 1960s by Spoken Arts with William Daniels and Mark Richman (who replaced George Maharis in the U.S. première).  Texts of The Zoo Story have been published in many editions since 1960, including anthologies (though whether the old version is still available is questionable); Albee’s new version is available as the second act of At Home at the Zoo from Overlook Press (2008).

Under the umbrella title Peter and Jerry, the new two-act play premièred on 28 May 2004 at the Hartford Stage in Connecticut (which commissioned the new play) with Pam MacKinnon directing and Frank Wood as Peter; Johanna Day as his wife, Ann; and Frederick Weller as Jerry.  Peter and Jerry’s New York début was on 11 November 2007 at the Second Stage Theatre under MacKinnon direction again and Day again playing Ann, but with Bill Pullman as Peter and Dallas Roberts as Jerry. 

The title Peter and Jerry didn’t last very long.  (In an interview on TheaterScene.net, Albee explained that he didn’t like the title, though “it IS accurate,” because “it sounded too much like ‘Ben & Jerry’s’ ice cream.”)  On 20 March 2009, the Philadelphia Theatre Company presented the two-act version as Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story, its official title now, with Mary B. Robinson as director, T. Scott Cunningham as Peter, Susan McKey as Ann, and Andrew Polk as Jerry.  On 5 June 2009 the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco presented the play’s west coast première under Rebecca Bayla Taichman’s direction, with Anthony Fusco as Peter, René Augesen as Ann, and Manoel Felciano as Jerry. 

Subsequent productions of At Home at the Zoo were staged in Seattle (Theater Schmeater) in November 2009, Pittsburgh (Ghostlight Theatre Troupe) in July 2010, Washington, D.C. (Arena Stage) in March-April 2011, Boston (Zeitgeist Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts) in May 2011, and Stockbridge, Massachusetts (Berkshire Theatre Group), in July-August 2017.  The first New York City mounting of At Home at the Zoo (and only the second presentation of the two-acter here) is the current Signature Theatre Company production which started previews on 30 January 2018 with the opening night on 21 February; the show is now scheduled to close on 25 March (after extensions from 11 and 18 March).  Albee, who was the playwright-in-residence for Signature’s 1993-94 season, had often returned to the company’s stages as a Legacy writer, most recently with The Sandbox, part of The Signature Plays, a bill of one-acts (on which I reported on Rick On Theater on 3 June 2016).

I met Diana, my usual theater companion, at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Manhattan’s Theatre Row to see the 7:30 performance on Friday evening, 3 March.  Housed in the Irene Diamond Stage, the retitled revival, part of STC’s Legacy Progam, is directed by Lila Neugebauer (Signature Plays, which included Albee’s The Sandbox; A. R. Gurney’s The Wayside Motor Inn; Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Everybody—all at Signature and all reported on Rick On Theater), with Robert Sean Leonard as Peter, Katie Finneran as Ann, and Paul Sparks as Jerry.

The two-hour evening (with intermission) starts with the prequel, Homelife, as act one of At Home at the Zoo.  It’s a Sunday afternoon (the published text says 1 p.m.) and we’re in an Upper East Side apartment on 74th Street between Lexington and 3rd Avenues.  (The sets were designed by Andrew Lieberman and lit by Japhy Weideman.)  Peter from The Zoo Story (Robert Sean Leonard), about 45, is sitting up right in a green upholstered chair with matching hassock; he’s reading what turns out to be one of the textbooks his company publishes.  He’s interrupted by his 38-year-old wife Ann (Katie Finneran) who bursts in from the off-stage kitchen and proclaims: “We should talk.”  The scene reveals the comfortable, but boring, domestic life of Peter and Ann, their two daughters, two cats, and two parakeets (they have two everything, Ann points out, including microwaves), before he goes to the park where he has the fateful meeting with Jerry.  

It’s an Ionesco-like dialogue between Peter and his wife—covering her prophylactic breast removal, the possibility of either or both husband and wife having an affair, his disappearing circumcision, sleep paralysis, the lack of animalistic sex in their marriage, conflicting desires between their marriage being “a smooth voyage on a safe ship” and the urge, or wish, to “behave . . . like beasts”—that’s supposed to tell more about who Peter is and where he comes from when Jerry encounters him in Central Park, to make him a fuller, more relatable person than he allowed to be in The Zoo Story.  Homelife doesn’t end with a conclusive moment; it’s elliptical and at the end of the act, Peter goes off to the park to read, setting up The Zoo Story. 

After intermission, we return to the theater for The Zoo Story to find an arc of park benches, empty except for Peter, who’s reading contentedly.  Actually, he’s sitting in almost the exact same spot, engaged in the same activity, in this set as he was at the top of act one!  It’s later that same afternoon and this is a place Peter comes to often on nice Sunday afternoons to sit and read in seclusion.  Into Peter’s solitude comes another, slightly younger man, in  his late 30’s and scruffily—Albee says “carelessly”—dressed.  This is Jerry (Paul Sparks), who sits on another bench further along the arc.  “I’ve been to the zoo,” announces Jerry after a moment or two.  As Peter doesn’t respond, he repeats the declaration several more times, each time more insistently.  From this initiation, Jerry increasingly dominates the encounter, essentially taking over and making Peter little more than his sounding board.  Thus begins the Pinteresque dialogue with the shocking ending (choreographed by UnkleDave's Fight-House) that is The Zoo Story; it’s far too well known and accessible to warrant summary here, so I’ll say no more. 

(I will say, however, that I was a little surprised that when Jerry provokes Peter into taking a dreadful action, there were gasps from several spectators.  I’d have thought, apparently wrongly, that pretty much everyone—especially in a Signature audience—would know how Zoo Story ends by now.  On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout insisted that “even if you know it’s coming,” Zoo Story‘s ending “is as shocking as a thunderclap on a sunny day.”)

The program doesn’t give a specific timeframe for the STC production; it just says “Sunday afternoon.”  The published text for At Home at the Zoo says “One p.m.  A Sunday” and “Later that same Sunday.”  (The old version of Zoo Story says “a Sunday afternoon in summer; the present,” which would have been 1959 or ’60 in its day.)  The production is costumed (by Kaye Voyce) ca. 2018, though nothing is really period-identifiable; the only set pieces are the chair and hassock in Homelife, and they’re characterless, and the park benches in Zoo Story, which are timeless.  

I caught a few references in Zoo Story that seem too contemporary for 1959: Jerry mentions Stephen King, whose first novel seems to have been published in 1974, and Peter says he earns 200 grand a year, which would have been a huge fortune in 1959 ($1.7 mil today).  The author named in the old version is J. P. Marquand, a popular author of the Mr. Moto mysteries who died in 1960, and Peter’s annual income is $18,000 (Albee gave him a raise: that’s only worth about $150,000 today!).  So At Home at the Zoo is up-dated to the 21st century, but non-specifically.  (Curiously, Peter carries only $40 with him in both eras—so he has less walkin’-around cash now than he did 50 years ago in terms of buying power.  Probably made up for with credit cards, rare in 1958.)  Oddly, there are a few references that are dated today, like pornographic playing cards, that the playwright might have changed but didn’t.

At Home at the Zoo was a disappointment from two perspectives.

To start with, Homelife is supposed to flesh out the character of Peter, whom Albee felt is underdeveloped in Zoo Story.  First of all, it doesn’t.  As Diana said, it’s purely an “intellectual exercise”; it doesn’t really have a function.  (I’d have called it theatrical masturbation, but that’s just me!)  In fact, as much as Jerry dominates Zoo Story, Ann dominates Homelife, though not as dynamically.  Second, seeing Zoo Story again (I hadn’t read it in a long time), Peter doesn’t need fleshing out.  I said to Diana, when the second act ended: “Zoo Story’s still a better play . . . by itself.”  In any case, Homelife struck me (and Diana.) as unnecessary—at least with respect to Zoo Story.  If Albee wanted to write an Ionesco-like one-act, he’s perfectly free to do so, but it didn’t help Zoo Story as far as I’m concerned.  (A more compelling mystery for me than what Peter was like in the moments before Zoo Story is what he does after that soul-shattering encounter.  Albee apparently refused to answer that question according the Village Voice’s Laura Collins-Hughes, who added that the STC revival of At Home at the Zoo “has me wishing, for the first time, that he had.”)

Then, the Signature production of Zoo Story was the second problem with At Home at the Zoo.  I think Neugebauer has made a terrible mistake with Jerry by making him an eccentric.  His behavior and rhetorical style is a performance (Jerry performing, I mean), acting as oddly and peculiarly as he can.  It’s as if Jerry were in a manic episode of bipolar disease.  If I were Peter, I’d have skedaddled at the first opportunity.  Sparks’s Jerry is the kind of guy who, if he was in the subway with you, you’d move to the opposite end of the car.  But Peter has to stay, and Leonard (not Peter) looked awkward and uncomfortable—like he hadn’t come up with a rational motivation to stick around.  I don’t know Sparks’s work at all so I can’t speak about how he’s handled other roles, but I do know Leonard’s acting, and he’s not the kind of performer who’d let himself do whatever a director tells him without grounding it on an objective—unless he couldn’t find a workable one.  It looked to me as if Neugebauer and Sparks kept him from finding one.

If Jerry behaves like an ordinary guy, albeit one with an obsession, Peter—who’s established that he’s compulsively inoffensive (the New York Times’ Jesse Green called him “domesticated”)—could reasonably tell himself, he should stay and give this guy an ear.  Until it’s too late to escape.  I say this makes Jerry all the more menacing—and the ending more shocking.

Aside from this problem I have with Sparks’s portrayal of Jerry, I applaud the acting overall.  However wrongly I feel  Sparks (and Neugebauer) misinterpreted the character of Jerry, Sparks executed it well.  That’s assuming the director intended Jerry to be not just strange, but peripatetic, flitting from one temperament to another as if to keep Peter off balance.  (Teachout described the portrayal as “skitter[ing] around the stage like a pinless grenade.”)  The actor certainly commits wholeheartedly to the performance.  As Ann, the new character in the expanded play, Katie Finneran, a two-time Tony Award-winner (2002 Best Featured Actress in a Play for Noises Off; 2010 Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Promises, Promises), makes her role as provocateur of clueless Peter seem natural—or at least as natural as an Ionesco-ish milieu can seem.  She delivers absurdly droll lines with a straight face that occasionally morphs into a Cheshire-cat grin.  At the same time, Finneran can go dark, more ominous than Jerry’s hyperkinesis.

The connector for the two playlets is Peter, who remains a bit of a cipher in the hands of Robert Sean Leonard, Neugebauer, and Albee.  As the only character who carried over from Homelife to The Zoo Story, Leonard (2001 Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play for The Invention of Love, plus two other Tony nominations) is about as mild-mannered as any man could be before becoming a milquetoast.  As I suggested above, Peter shrinks from offending anyone, not Ann nor Jerry, and Leonard, who’s never a dynamic actor (not a fault), plays him as virtually imperturbable—until Jerry succeeds in driving him to an unthinkable act.  In both his roles (the same character, but different relationships), Leonard plays second banana-cum-straight man.  (Far from having been “fleshed out,” Peter has merely been expanded.)  As I’ve already said, however, Leonard hasn’t overcome the problem of performing opposite Sparks’s unmoored Jerry in Zoo Story—though he fares much better in his scene with Finneran’s Ann in Homelife.

I think I’ve pretty clearly indicated how I feel about Neugebauer’s directing for At Home at the Zoo: she did a creditable job with Homelife without really making the case for its existence and she took a major wrong turn in Zoo Story.  Her physical production, however, is fascinating.  I noted that the production doesn’t give away a period other than generally “present day”—21st-century-ish.  Voyce’s costumes, for example, are identifiable as modern-day mostly because they don’t identify as anything older—certainly not mid-20th-century America.  Weideman’s lighting  is almost operating-room stark and bright, as if we’re all supposed to be examining the specimens Albee’s put on exhibit. 

The most striking element of the mise-en-scène is the background of the set.  As I said, there are only a single selection of set pieces for each act: Peter’s chair, hassock, and the floor lamp he reads by in Homelife and the four park benches in Zoo Story.  The rest of the stage setting is a painted backdrop and the painted stage floor, the same for both acts (a second connection for the two playlets in addition to Peter’s presence) but shifted at intermission to alter the shape of the space.  The flats and the floor are both painted white overlaid with a random texturing that gives both surfaces the feel of a Jackson Pollock drip painting.  (Most reviewers who made an association invoked Cy Twombly; I’ll stick with my impression.)  In Homelife, it can be seen as abstract-expressionist wallpaper and carpeting perhaps; in Zoo Story, it stands in for foliage and ground cover.  Now, Albee describes the scenery for each act as largely realistic, but I found Lieberman’s rendition more in keeping with the non-realistic styles of the two playlets: Ionesco-like absurdism for act one and Pinteresque drama of menace for act two.  (There’s also a Brechtian aspect to the set design in that it leaves no doubt that this is a stage performance which seems appropriate for Albee’s American absurdism in the 21st century.)

The Show-Score review tally for At Home at the Zoo comprised 34 reviews as of 11 March.  The notices break down into 94% positive and 6% mixed; there were no negative reviews.  Show-Score’s highest ratings were two 95’s from Magical MissTari Tour and BSonArts, a pair of blogs (backed by 11 90’s, including the New York Times, the Financial Times, TheaterScene.net, and the Daily Beast); the lowest scores were a 60 from Lighting & Sound America and a 65 from Stage Buddy, both websites.  My round-up will cover 22 notices.

Terry Teachout asserted in the Wall Street Journal that Neugebauer’s mounting of At Home at the Zoo at STC is “masterly in its visual clarity and psychological acuity,” but declared that this “cannot cover up the fact that Albee made a bad mistake when he wrote ‘Homelife’ and an even worse one when he yoked it to ‘The Zoo Story.’”  The Journalist feels (as if he had read my own mind), “Part of the enduring power of ‘The Zoo Story’ lies in the fact that it is simultaneously clear and mysterious.”  He explained his perspective: “The mystery of ‘The Zoo Story’ lies in the absence of context for the violent encounter of Peter and Jerry, about whom we know nothing save what they tell us.”  Teachout asks why Albee even wrote Homelife, the prequel to Zoo Story; he complains that

there is no point in Albee’s telling us what he will show us after intermission, and the only effect of watching it spelled out in “Homelife” is to diminish the force of the second play’s climactic confrontation.  It’s as though a standup comedian explained the punchline of a joke to the audience before telling it.

“Since Ms. Neugebauer is stuck with ‘Homelife,’” the WSJ reviewer acknowledged, “her only choice is to make the most of it.”  Teachout reported, “Ms. Finneran’s performance, by turns fey and desperately sad, is instantaneously involving, while Mr. Leonard brings off the wire-walking feat of being dull in an interesting way”—as he accomplishes in Zoo Story as well.  Sparks’s Jerry, said Teachout, is “deliberately spectacular,” and Ms. Neugebauer has framed it with the loving care of a curator hanging an Abstract Expressionist canvas.”  Though he called Homelife a “pale exercise in social realism,” he affirmed that “‘Zoo Story’ is worth seeing anyway.”

In Long Island’s Newsday, Barbara Schuler cautioned, “Sometimes a good idea needs to simmer,” explaining, “So it seems with the late Edward Albee, who nearly 50 years after 1958’s ‘The Zoo Story,’ his first success, embellished on the story with ‘Homelife,’ a prequel of sorts.”  Schuler confirmed that “it’s easy to see how the more recently written play clarifies the early one, especially deepening the character of” Peter.  The Newsday reviewer characterized the production as “meticulously staged” and praised the three actors, Leonard (“appropriately introspective”), Finneran (“talk about simmering”), and Sparks (“on-fire”).  Her one lament: “What’s really too bad is that Albee . . . is no longer around to finish the story.  I, for one, long to hear what Peter might have said to Ann when he finally got back from the park that fateful afternoon.”

Jesse Green of the New York Times asks at the start of his notice, “Was there ever a more terrifying opening line, in a play or in life, than ‘We should talk’”?  Those are the first words, spoken by Ann to her husband Peter in Homelife.  (“Well, maybe,” he continued.  “For those who recognize it, ‘I’ve been to the zoo’ is at least as ominous”—Zoo Story‘s opening line.  I heartily concur!)  In Green’s estimation, Homelife “emerges . . . as more than just the other half of an eggshell, jaggedly interlocking.  Lila Neugebauer’s terrific production proves it to be an indispensably excellent work in its own right.”  The evening’s full moniker, Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story, Green quipped, “produces a typically mordant Albee joke.  The playwright was nothing if not ‘at home at the zoo.’  Often, the zoo was marriage” (think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or A Delicate Balance).  Of the marriage of Homelife to Zoo Story, Green asserted, “Now we know how much is at stake [in Zoo Story] not only for Jerry . . .  but also for his trapped listener.”  The Timesman felt that, though “‘The Zoo Story’ became an instant classic [at its première] . . ., I would argue that it is deepened immeasurably by Albee’s surgery nearly 50 years later.”  The prequel is “so cleverly done that it seems to be a restoration rather than an addition.” 

Green had found Pam MacKinnon’s 2007 première of At Home at the Zoo “anxious” because of Albee’s “hovering,” but Neugebauer’s version “is much freer and funnier and thus more powerful.”  The Times review-writer reported that “it breathes instead of hyperventilates, until its brutal conclusion.”  “The same,” he said, “is true of the actors: They do not approach the play as an awesome classic but as a living organism.”  Leonard, Green affirmed, “is very good” and “often catches the sound of Albee’s voice”;  Sparks “solves the . . . problem in Jerry, a character with almost too many colors, often verging on purple”; and Finneran “is spectacular” because “she uses [her] wit, gently but insistently, like a hygienist with a curet, to scrape away the social surface of her marriage.” 

The Financial Times’ Max McGuinness found that in At Home at the Zoo, “Albee’s writing is so lean and nuanced that there are no lurches between madness and civilisation.  Monstrousness here blends seamlessly into the fabric of normality.”  McGuinness feels, “The expanded version . . . broadens that psychodrama into a universal parable of man’s struggle to restrain his animal nature.”  Director Neugebauer’s “stripped-down staging suggests how fragile such bonds can be,” he found.  “And her Zoo injects an electrifying dose of terror into the ersatz wilderness at the heart of New York.”  Of the acting, the FT reviewer said that Leonard’s performance is “taut” and “turns Peter into a dense psychological enigma”; Finneran’s Ann is “vampish yet forlorn”; and Sparks’s Jerry is “played with a volatile blend of lunacy and vulnerability.”

In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz observed, “It doesn’t take much to reveal people’s animal side and lack of humanity—a bit of conversation will do.”  He offered STC’s At Home at the Zoo as proof.  Dziemianowicz reported that Homelife, which covers all manner of subjects, is “just talk” (“And how”), but “The madness gets real in ‘The Zoo Story.’”  The Newsman asserted that, even 11 years after its  première as a two-acter, “‘Homelife’ still sounds like characters spouting an author’s ideas about cruelty and isolation—and not real talk.  ‘The Zoo Story’ still manages to unsettle.”  Dziemianowicz felt, “Lila Neugebauer’s direction cannily underscores the unnerving closeness—and more often distance—between people;” while “[a]nother key to the show’s success is its abstract scenic design by Andrew Lieberman.”  Of the acting, the review-writer said, “Three winning performances show off each work to its best advantage”:

Leonard nails Peter's mild-mannered calm and the storm beneath it.  Sparks is spiky as required as Jerry.  Finneran brings so much smarts, humor, vulnerability and a subtle jagged edge to Ann that you can't take eyes or ears off of her.

Laura Collins-Hughes of the Village Voice dubbed the STC revival of “Albee’s stitched-together play” “electrifying” because Neugebauer “unlocks something essential in this production.”  “If you, like me,” maintained Collins-Hughes, “never thought Homelife worked before; if you, like me, suspected The Zoo Story was too much of a period piece to retain a powerfully visceral performative charge, well, you’re in for a jolt, too.”  She explained: “Freeing the text from” Albee’s notion of how it “should be staged,” Neugebauer “lets the menace of the play arise from its animal wildness, the pleasure of it from its human comedy.”  She “excavated” the “feral geography of human impulse and desire,” said Collins-Hughes.  The review-writer characterized the revival as a “thrilling, illuminating production” with a “sprightly, dark-edged, laceratingly funny performance” from Finneran, a “[s]ly and unbalanced in a gorgeously kinetic performance” by Sparks, and “surprising glimmers of poignancy” from Leonard.

In the “Goings On About Town” section of the New Yorker, the reviewer indicated that “it’s human self-consciousness—the thing that separates us from animals—and the impossibility of overcoming it that give these plays their humor and sorrow and horror.”  While Lieberman’s set “skews abstract,” Neugebauer’s “sensitively directed and finely acted production grounds the work in everyday behavior and real feeling.”  In New York magazine, Sara Holdren proclaimed, “There’s a small play playing on Signature Theatre’s largest stage.”  She elucidated, “Well, in some ways it’s small. In reputation, it’s big.”  Then Holdren demanded “why?”  

Why is Signature filling the 294-seat Irene Diamond with a play that, for all its historical significance, is a bit like the theatrical equivalent of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery or O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi: undeniably Good in certain senses—well-structured, surprising (well . . . the first time), and important from a cultural-literacy standpoint—but now so established, so known that its teeth can’t help feeling a bit dulled.

Raising the question that isn’t the same true of all revivals, including all those Shakespeares mounted in U.S. theaters every year, Holdren responded, “I’d argue that there’s something different in the continued examination of canonical works in the public domain—where there’s the potential, with each new production, for an entirely reenvisioned theatrical world,” responded Holdren, continuing, “than in the relatively unadventurous remounting of plays by writers who, living or dead, hold such sway over their work that different productions, despite their individual merits or shortcomings, feel much the same.”  Director Neugebauer “doesn’t take, and probably doesn’t have the option of taking, . . . liberties in At Home at the Zoo.  Her production is fine, well-drawn within the lines.”  It’s “unfussy and actor-focused,” said the reviewer from New York.  At Home at the Zoo,” contended Holdren, “thus becomes an examination not of two fully wrought men but of how some men, no matter what, remain empty.”  She reported of the acting, “Leonard and Finneran both acquit themselves well in the play’s less fireworks-y roles” but Sparks “owns the show.”  He’s “compelling” in “his deadpan drawl and sloping, vulpine walk.”

Helen Shaw declared at the top of her Time Out New York review, “There’s no way to say this gently. The play At Home at the Zoo is a single drama Frankenstein-ed together out of two one-acts: Edward Albee’s 1959 masterpiece, The Zoo Story, is bolted onto its far inferior prequel, Homelife . . . .”  Shaw further asserted that playing both one-acts together, as Albee demands, may be “laudable, honorable even, but it makes for an evening that’s fully half bad.”  She exclaimed, “Yet there’s good news: Thanks to the diamondlike brilliance of Paul Sparks in Zoo, the show is unmissable.” (The woman from TONY, however, added: “Out of respect for his costar Robert Sean Leonard, I’m not telling you to just show up at intermission.”)  

Shaw called Homelife “almost . . . a spoof on an Albee play”; in addition, “Albee admitted in interviews that Homelife exists only to fill in ‘gaps’ in Peter’s character in Zoo, and everything about Ann . . . points to that purpose-built blankness.  She’s a margin where Albee could scrawl notes about Peter.”  (After listing all the attributes that make Zoo Story a modern theater classic, the TONY reviewer supplied her answer—and mine, too—to New York’s Holdren’s argument for not mounting the play anymore: “it’s the kind of play that opens wider every time you see it.”)  Shaw proclaimed STC’s Zoo Story “a duet, beautifully orchestrated by director Lila Neugebauer” and lauded the two actors: “Leonard finds a world of grace notes to play, but the melody line belongs to Sparks, who prowls like a Muppet tiger.”  In Homelife, the review-writer said of Finneran’s Ann that the actress “ladles charm on the part, but she can’t hide that it’s a paper-thin construction.”

Frank Scheck’s “Bottom Line” for his notice in the Hollywood Reporter was: “Superb performances enliven these classic and not-so-classic works.”  Describing the STC revival as “superbly acted,” Scheck added that the director “has assembled a first-rate cast.”  He asked, however, “whether the prequel enhances the impact of Zoo Story.  The answer is, not so much, really.”  The HR reviewer dubbed Homelife “a minor work, one that displays flashes of Albee’s brilliance at crafting wittily incisive dialogue” and deemed that “it mainly proves discursive and insubstantial.”  Scheck also felt, “Albee’s decision to update Zoo Story also feels unfortunate; jarring anachronisms have the ironic effect of making the play feel more dated than it actually is.”  He concluded, “Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating double bill” that features “terrific performances”: Leonard, Scheck reported, “acutely conveys Peter’s inability to be comfortable in his own skin”; Finneran “infuses Ann with a delightful sauciness, milking her arch dialogue for all its comic richness”; and Sparks “is a force of nature as the animalistic but canny Jerry, who . . . brings a particularly mesmerizing combination of malevolence and humor to it.” The HR writer’s final remark is that Sparks’s Jerry “is an acting tour-de-force that provides reason enough for this revival.”

On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart called The Zoo Story a “breakthrough one-act” with a “gut-punch depiction of class rage”—even though he also denigrated it somewhat as a “short story masquerading as drama.”  He warned readers, “Now that class resentment has become one of the most potent forces in our national conversation, At Home at the Zoo serves as a prescient warning of things to come.”  He credited Neugebauer with showing “Peter and Ann’s specific brand of unostentatious wealth [in Homelife] with efficiency and clarity.”  Stewart reported that Leonard’s “soft, measured line deliveries also betray Peter’s effortless privilege” and Finneran “introduces a nagging dissatisfaction to this picture of bourgeois bliss” while “[e]nnui radiates from her spectral figure.”  Sparks, said the TM reviewer, “makes a thrillingly unpredictable Jerry, accenting his performance with birdlike eyes and pointed modulations in his voice”—though even he “isn’t able to fully activate Jerry’s extended monologue.”  

Michael Dale noted on Broadway World that At Home at the Zoo represents “the first major work by one of America’s most iconic playwrights paired with one of his last” and though “both plays are intimate by nature,“ director Neugebauer “takes full advantage of the large Diamond Theatre stage.”  Of the acting, Dale found that Sparks gives an “animated performance” that “also seems designed to fill the space, undercutting some of the play’s tension by making the character more entertaining than menacing; Finneran “is right on the mark as Ann, balancing sensitivity and love for her husband with the itching desire for more”; “Leonard’s beautifully subtle Peter is all the more fascinating for the emotions he hides than the emotions he expresses.”  In the end, however, the BWW reviewer found that “the two plays do tend to come off more like acting exercises than the social commentary they hint at.”  Nonetheless, he reported, the evening “makes for an intriguing experience.”

David Barbour of Lighting & Sound America (Show-Score’s lowest-rated notice at 60) felt that, while “Albee’s observations are . . . capable of chilling one to the bone,” in At Home at the Zoo, his “effort was not entirely successful, and Lila Neugebauer’s production at the Signature is, in many ways, not ideal.”  Homelife, the LSA reviewer stated “doesn’t land with as much force as it might” and, though the two playlets “make an elegant pair” on one hand, on the other they “are very uneasily joined.”  Barbour noted the up-dates Albee made to Zoo Story, but saw that “the seams still show.”  Though the review-writer found that Sparks “makes Jerry’s final act seem horribly plausible,” Barbour thought (as I did) that the actor “seems to be trying on one attitude after another in search of a coherent character.”  The LSA journalist shared my feeling about the character: “There should be a touch of menace about Jerry from the get-go, but instead, here we have an actor going through a series of exercises.”  In the end, Barbour dubbed The Zoo Story “a sometimes-problematic production of a slightly problematic work.”  He recommended, “If you’ve never seen At Home at the Zoo, this is well worth a visit; if you’ve seen it before, your time might be better spent elsewhere.”

On New York Theater, Jonathan Mandell announced bluntly, “The yoking together of these two separate one-acts into a single play still doesn’t work for me.”  Mandell saw the combined two-act play “almost as an act of vandalism” and asked, “Why did Peter need to be fleshed out; why the need for balance?”  He explained, “There is an adolescent fury to ‘The Zoo Story’ that doesn’t belong paired with the more sedate, oblique and adult ‘Homelife,’” which the review-writer characterized as “decidedly second-tier Albee.”  Nonetheless, Mandell acknowledged that director Neugebauer “makes as good a case as seems possible for this play, thanks to the casting.”  Leonard “manages to make Peter’s desire for a marriage that’s like a ‘smooth voyage on a safe ship’ seem reasonable”; Finneran “brings some life to a woman who, unlike her husband, wants ‘a little disorder around here, a little . . . chaos’—a little passion.”  But Mandell found “some irony in realizing that ‘Homelife’ doesn’t so much ‘flesh out’ Peter as contrast his continuing emptiness against a second more vibrant character.”  As for Zoo Story, he proclaimed Sparks’s performances “spectacular.”  However much time has passed, Mandell felt, Zoo Story “still stands out; its vigor and humor and rage and sadness have not been destroyed by time, nor by its creator.”

Samuel L. Leiter described The Zoo Story as “a brilliantly calibrated, often bitingly funny tragicomedy” and labeled Homelife “one of the best one-acts of the young century”; he’s “not sure, though, that [Homelife] greatly illuminates what happens in” Zoo Story, in which “Peter’s enigmatic character can be viewed as one of its strengths.”  Once again, a reviewer praised the performances in STC’s At Home at the Zoo: Finneran “offers passionate curiosity and grace”; “Leonard’s helplessness is totally sincere”; and Sparks “captures Jerry’s angst and anger with scary friendliness.”  Leiter, however, found problems with the stage settings for both one-acts, with Lieberman’s “abstract design . . . on the too-wide stage . . . a cold, neutral, open space” which “creates an expansive world that works against the intimacy of each environment.”  Homelife’s setting, the Broadway blogger reported, “hints at a frigidity in Peter and Ann’s relationship that exceeds what Albee seems to be implying.  In The Zoo Story, having five benches in a semicircle, instead of the usual one, eliminates any sense of isolation from Peter’s nook.”  Leiter’s final comment (very similar to my own remark earlier) was: “I still prefer my Zoo Story by itself.”

Elyse Sommer of CurtainUp called At Home at the Zoo at STC “a superbly cast, smartly directed productionand quipped, “I think if Mr. Albee were still with us, he’d be pleased.”  Sommer further observed that “Homelife . . . can be seen as a stand-alone marital drama” while Zoo Story displays “Albee's provocative insight into the darker passions that lie beneath the human veneer of civility.”  She cautioned, however, “In both plays a lot depends on the actors' ability to capture the subtle intricacies with which people communicate.”  In Leonard’s Homelife performance, “just watch his facial expression and body language, and you'll see a man of many moods,” while Finneran “is obviously more ready to steer the marital ship into less calm waters.”  The CU reviewer affirmed, “While Homecoming does flesh out the picture of Peter as a man symbolizing the complacent, upper middle class, seeing it doesn't really diminish The Zoo Story strength.”  Yet, Sommer asserted that “the sizzle still belongs to The Zoo Story . . . with the amazing Paul Sparks.”  She complimented Lieberman’s set, pointing out that the “set-up intensifies the connection between both plays.”  In her final words, the review-writer declared that “a visit to this Peter and Jerry (and Ann) is highly recommended.”

On Talkin’ Broadway, Howard Miller labeled At Home at the Zoo “a razor-sharp revival,” asserting, “In the hands of Ms. Neugebauer and a stellar cast, the two one-acts that Albee himself fused into a single work remain as relevant and psychologically true as they were more than a decade ago.”  He called Leonard “a master at turning ‘passivity’ into a verb” and dubbed Sparks “mesmerizing.”  Miller concluded that “the director, her fine cast, and the design team have shown us [The Zoo Story] to be timeless.”  Theater Pizzazz’s Brian Scott Lipton described At Home at the Zoo at Signature as a “splendid incarnation” of Zoo Story, which “can still rouse us from our metaphorical slumbers and force us to reexamine how we interact with each other.”  Lipton reported, “Much of the credit for this production’s success belongs to the sensitive direction of Lila Neugebauer” whose cast is “led by the great Paul Sparks, who finds just the right tone for portraying Jerry,” and features “the excellent Robert Sean Leonard.”  Homelife, said the TP writer, is “a slighter if quintessentially Albeesque meditation on marriage” in which Finneran “is alternately funny and heartbreaking, confident and unsure, matter-of-fact and deadly serious.” 

Joel Benjamin characterized The Zoo Story as a “stylized vision of an anonymous encounter in Central Park” on TheaterScene.net and dubbed Homelife “a sly study of domesticity” in which “[t]here are hints of darkness now and then.”  Finneran, reported Benjamin, is “amusing, strong and smart” and Leonard gives “an assured performance as a somewhat hyper-controlled personality.”  In Zoo Story, Sparks is “the personification of a ego attached to a fading machismo.”  The TheaterScene reviewer reported, “Lila Neugebauer has directed these two one-acts to bring out their naturalism” giving “the conversations a flow that reveals this play to be about people, not walking symbols.”  Kathryn Kelly of Stage Buddy explained that “At Home at the Zoo intends to add symmetry and depth to” the incomplete Zoo Story, but she found “the choices of this production make the venerable playwright’s intentions ultimately fall flat.”  Kelly asserted, “The setting of Homelife—or more appropriately, its lack of setting—is detrimental to the territory that it navigates” because, she felt, it provides insufficient information about the couple and their lives.  The Zoo Story, however, is a spectacular showcase of the wickedly talented Paul Sparks,” proclaimed our Stage Buddy, who “was captivated by Sparks: his movements, his pauses, and his embodiment of Jerry were exhilarating.”  In the end, Kelly found that “despite strong performances . . . something is still missing from this production of At Home at the Zoo.”

On New York Theater Guide, Constance Rodgers reported, “Robert Sean Leonard, Katie Finneran and Paul Sparks all provide a deep understanding of and respect for the characters they play.  I felt like I was spying on two very private scenes.”  She praised Lieberman’s set as “fabulously sparse” so that “[o]ur attention is on the words spoken, the cadence of the language, the inflection of emotion.”  Bruce Smith blogged on BSonArts (to which Show-Score gave its highest rating, 95) that STC’s revival of the Albee play is “enlightening” and “timely and worth re-experiencing now.”  The revival “is a beautifully conceptualized and an impressively executed evening in the theatre.”  Calling the production “near perfect,” Smith went on to report, “The real standout among a very strong cast is Paul Sparks” who “takes a role that is usually played as a series of aggressions and retreats and plays it as a happy-go-lucky story teller” who “quite literally dances around the stage.”  Leonard and Finneran “are a well-matched pair. . . . as far their acting is concerned” and Neugebauer’s “direction . . . is filled with perfectly placed pauses and perplexing moments of reflection.” 

[There’s some confusion about the availability of The Zoo Story as a stand-alone one-act play.  On National Public Radio, Caitlin Shetterly reports that “Albee is now insisting that ‘The Zoo Story’ can no longer be performed professionally on its own.  It has to be performed with the new opening act, under” its full, current umbrella title (that is: Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story).  On the Edward Albee Society webpage, however, is the statement: “According to the publishing firm Samuel French, ‘The Zoo Story may be performed independently.  However, Homelife may only be performed as part of the full length play At Home at the Zoo.’”  On the website Berkshire Fine Arts, Charles Giuliano specified in 2017 that after the Hartford Stage debut of At Home at the Zoo, “Albee refused permission for all but non equity [sic] and college productions [of The Zoo Story] in the original form as a one act play.”  The published edition of At Home at the Zoo doesn’t address the issue of production rights at all. 

[If I’m interpreting these mixed messages right, Albee’s estate has decreed that Homelife and Zoo Story can only be performed together under the cumbersome umbrella title in professional—that is Actors Equity—productions.  Samuel French has carved out an exception for Zoo Story, but French handles only non-professional rights; professional productions of The Zoo Story as a single one-act are excluded.  If that’s right, we’ve lost the opportunity to do Zoo Story the way Albee originally wrote it, which I say is still it’s best format. 

[I hope I turn out to be wrong, but Robert Orchard, executive director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard, says: “The idea of an iconic play like ‘The Zoo Story,’ which everybody knows and which every theater student has performed, or at least been involved with, to have it all of [a] sudden no longer available is kind of a shock to the system.”  Shetterly interprets: “Orchard can no longer stage ‘The Zoo Story’ at A.R.T., but he can present it with his students because colleges and amateur companies need no agreements from Albee.”  Former New York Times theater reviewer Charles Isherwood believes that the restrictions on professional productions of Zoo Story are a bad decision: “[I]t’s kind of sad.  And ‘The Zoo Story’ is such a seminal play in the American theater that to limit the way it’s produced or in one context it’s produced is—I can understand why people would be upset about that.”]

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