Albee Back: The classic Zoo Story now has a domestic first act.
Albee Back: The classic Zoo Story now has a domestic first act.

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For just over half a century, Edward Albee’s first play, The Zoo Story—about a park-bench encounter between Peter, a reserved middle-class publisher, and Jerry, a volatile transient—stood its ground as a classic one-act. Now it’s a classic Act Two, permanently tethered to Homelife, a recently penned first-act addendum (the author will no longer allow professional theaters to present The Zoo Story on its own) in an evening called At Home at the Zoo. At Arena Stage’s Edward Albee Festival, audiences have the chance to decide whether that’s a diminishment or an enhancement.

I’ll come down tentatively on the enhancement side, though not because Mary B. Robinson’s flatfooted staging makes a particularly compelling case for the pairing. Where The Zoo Story is pointedly naturalistic and down-to-earth—a conversation between a conformist and an outcast that grows menacing and leads to violence—Homelife, which peeks into the East 74th Street apartment that Peter (Jeff Allin) shares with his wife Ann (Colleen Delaney), finds the author in an airier, more meta mood.

No topic is so concrete that this married couple can’t soften it with phrasing. Having one’s breasts sliced off? “I remember the night I thought about thinking about it,” offers Ann. Rage in lovemaking? It’s “what I can’t imagine imagining.” Chatter about circumcision, extramarital affairs, and cannibalism all present opportunities not for marital confrontation but for deflection. Albee and his absurdist brethren in the 1960s maintained that true communication was impossible—that’s a big part of what The Zoo Story is about—and all these years later, the topic is clearly still on the playwright’s mind. Peter and Ann don’t so much talk as talk about what they’d like to talk about. They’re distanced, barely connecting, as if they’ve been roommates for years, not spouses. They natter on about raising two girls, two parakeets, two cats, and as the specifics pile up, it’s increasingly hard to believe they know each other very well. Which may be the point, though if that’s the case, it’s undercut here by having the performers deliver their lines with such studied affectlessness that the dialogue sounds like…well, like dialogue in a play.

After intermission, Peter leaves Ann behind to read a book in the park, and the arrival of disheveled, garrulous Jerry (James McMenamin), spouting stories about liquored-up landladies and malevolent dogs, dispels all this airiness. McMenamin prowls the stage, flashing an unnerving smile, looking a bit like a young Jack Nicholson, and leaving little doubt that Peter’s aloofness won’t deflect him for a second.

“We have to know the effects of our actions,” Jerry avers, and the directness of that statement seems a rebuke to everything Peter stands for. The hypotheticals this quiet man and his wife deal with in their apartment won’t cut it in the park. Personal space isn’t a concept here—it’s real and violatable. Menace is physical, and the play works as it always has.