“Mister, I’ve been to the zoo!” – a strange icebreaker, indeed. And with that line, which comes from the one-act drama The Zoo Story (which played Berlin in 1959 and Off-Broadway in 1960), the career of the late experimental, probing, often inscrutable American playwright Edward Albee (who died in 2016 at the age off 88) took off.
Two years later, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? came to Broadway, and the rest is history. Albee instantly became one of America’s playwrights. While none of his subsequent plays equaled the critical and commercial success of Virginia Woolf, he went on to win three Pulitzer Prizes for Drama (for A Delicate Balance, Seascape and Three Tall Women, which is now receiving its first Broadway production), withstand many fast flops (including Malcolm, the never-opened musical adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Lady from Dubuque, Lolita and The Man Who Had Three Arms) and achieve a late-in-life career comeback (with Three Tall Women and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?), a feat that neither Arthur Miller nor Tennessee Williams could pull off.
At the time of his death, Albee was working on a new play, titled Laying an Egg, which was at one point announced for the Signature Theatre’s 2013-14 season but was subsequently pulled. So technically speaking, Albee’s last two works are Me, Myself and I (an underwhelming absurdist comedy that played Playwrights Horizons in 2010) and At Home At the Zoo, a revamp of The Zoo Story, in which the 1959 one-act was combined with an all-new one-act prequel (Homelife), turning it into a full-length drama. In a way, At Home At the Zoo represents the complete Albee, his playwriting career having come full circle.
The Zoo Story (which was written for two actors, with little scenic design besides a park bench or two) is lean, mysterious, muscular and (depending on the production) absolutely gripping. Peter, a middle-aged, mild-mannered publishing executive, husband and father, is sitting on a park bench, alone and reading. Along comes the disheveled, oddball Jerry, who approaches Peter with the line, “Mister, I’ve been to the zoo!” Many of us, were we in Peter’s shoes, would probably walk away. I surely would. Peter, for whatever reason, allows Jerry to keep talking, insisting that Jerry is not bothering him and that he is willing to chat. Jerry goes on (often in extended monologue form) about his dreary boarding house living conditions and his complicated relationship with his landlady’s oversized watchdog. This leads to a violent climax in which Jerry forces Peter to leave his comfort zone and confront his long ignored inner animal spirit.
Homelife parallels The Zoo Story in a number of ways. Peter (who is first seen reading in a comfortable armchair) is suddenly addressed by his wife Ann, who shares her belief that something inexplicable is lacking from their comfortable lives – namely sexual, animalistic passion. Ann goads Peter into opening up about a painful memory in which he unintentionally physically injured a young woman during a sexual encounter in college. One could argue that Homelife fleshes out Peter as a character, but The Zoo Story works perfectly well without Homelife. In fact, I think sitting through Homelife beforehand removes some of the edge and mystery from The Zoo Story. An hour of Homelife dulls the audience before it reaches The Zoo Story. Albee erred in setting Homelife in the present day. In spite of a few edits to The Zoo Story (such as a reference to Stephen King), many details in The Zoo Story (cops looking for gay men in the bushes of Central Park, single-room occupancy buildings on the West Side, amazement at someone having two televisions) are dated.
Personally, I think The Zoo Story works best when paired with another Albee one-act such as The American Dream, The Sandbox or The Death of Bessie Smith, or perhaps with Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (which complimented The Zoo Story at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1960). That being said, even if Homelife is not as absorbing and does not achieve the same dramatic intensity as The Zoo Story, it at least serves as an excuse for The Zoo Story to receive more professional productions.
I first saw At Home At the Zoo (previously titled Peter and Jerry) during its 2007 New York premiere at Second Stage with Bull Pullman playing Peter. It is now being revived by the Signature Theatre, under the direction of Lila Neugebauer (The Wolves), with Robert Sean Leonard (House) as Peter, Paul Sparks (House of Cards) as Jerry and two-time Tony winner Katie Finneran (Noises Off, Promises, Promises) as Ann.
There are multiple spaces within the newly constructed Pershing Square Signature Center, and At Home At the Zoo would have been best served in one of the more intimate ones. Instead, it is being produced at the largest one, with the widest stage – perhaps because Signature saw it as a potential commercial hit (at least by nonprofit Off-Broadway standards). In recognition of this, Neugebauer opted for a conceptual scenic design (by Andrew Lieberman) with bouldering white walls covered in scratch marks, which surround Peter’s armchair and then his park bench. Much of the stage floor is cut off during “Homelife” (pushing the actors downstage), while a circular arc of other park benches takes up space in The Zoo Story.
During this production, neither Homelife nor The Zoo Story drew me in. Homelife is a slight piece to begin with, and the expansive visual concept (which overwhelms the cast) made it even more difficult to connect with it. The performances are fine, with Finneran’s joking, energetic Ann desperately seeking to win the attention of Leonard’s mellow, polite, absent-minded Jerry. In The Zoo Story, Sparks imbues Jerry with a rough physicality and primitive sense of need. Once again, Leonard allows his co-star to dominate the scene while he remains mostly passive.
In recent years, Signature has produced revivals of Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque and The Sandbox. Signature will likely go on to produce other works by Albee that are unlikely to receive Broadway revivals anytime soon – perhaps Tiny Alice, Marriage Play and/or The Play About the Baby. Going forward, Signature should really consider which of its theaters would best serve the play.