At Home at the Zoo

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Editorial Review

'At Home at the Zoo' expands Albee's classic one-act play

By Peter Marks
Wednesday, March 9, 2011

When last we left Peter, an aloof Manhattan bench-sitter coerced into tragedy in Edward Albee's classic one-act, "The Zoo Story," he was fleeing the scene of a crime orchestrated by the garrulous Jerry, a transient oddball who provokes him during a chance encounter in Central Park.

Now, Albee, apparently thinking he hadn't finished with Peter in the piece from 50 years ago, has composed a companion playlet as a prologue, and conjoined the two in "At Home at the Zoo." As a result, the premise of "The Zoo Story" gains more context, even if audiences reap only a rather modest extra helping of drama.

Arena Stage is presenting "At Home at the Zoo" as one of the fully mounted attractions of its Edward Albee Festival, a two-month-long exploration of the dramatist's career that also includes a smashing Steppenwolf Theatre production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and readings of 26 other Albee plays. The "Zoo" one-acts belong in a sort of bonus-round category: They're designed for that subset of playgoers seeking the most complete immersion in his work.

For although "The Zoo Story" retains a shattering appeal in its undermining of affluent New York's urbane complacency, the preliminary act - set in Peter's Upper East Side apartment - comes across as a sedate exercise in throat-clearing. Adding to the proceedings the tale of the antiseptic marriage of Peter (Jeff Allin) and Ann (Colleen Delany) does lay the groundwork for some intriguing parallels: Peter is a smugly self-sufficient target for both Ann and Jerry (James McMenamin), who share a restless disdain for the status quo - and a potential to explode.

All three actors, guided efficiently in Arena's new Kogod Cradle by director Mary B. Robinson, adapt capably to Albee's high-level jousts. As Jerry, McMenamin has by far the showiest role, and the actor proves a smoothly effective interpreter of this antsy provocateur. The one objection is to a lack of crackle in the play's final moments, when Jerry's cruel manipulation of the encounter should strike more like lightning.

The evening begins with an opaque airing of grievances - and ends with a brutally transparent one. (Or maybe it's the other way around.) In the living room of their apartment, Ann tries in various ways to engage the inattentive Peter, who's buried in the textbook he's editing, in a talk about the drearily civilized state of their marriage.

The conversation turns essentially on their inability to communicate: Peter enigmatically points out that he suspects that his circumcision might be reversing itself, an observation so bizarre Ann doesn't know how to respond. It's as if their entire relationship has become a non sequitur. His refusal to validate her unhappiness quietly fuels her outrage until, in a slight hint of what is to come in Act 2, she lashes out physically.

"The Zoo Story" comprises that second act, and although it's a half-century older than Act 1, it's still the fresher and more compelling portion of the evening. Here again, Peter, retreating from his unsettling discussion with Ann, has his nose in a book. He's accosted by Jerry and subjected to a dialogue - well, a diatribe, anyway - in which he's reluctant to participate. That passive posture, ultimately, is his undoing.

McMenamin does swell by the centerpiece of "The Zoo Story," Jerry's sad and funny recitation of the story of his battle with his landlady's dog. Delany applies a pleasing veneer of composure to Ann's vexation, and Allin is persuasive as an inwardly turned man inclined to defend against the intrusions of strangers and loved ones alike.

James Noone's serene, sparsely furnished sets suit the minimalist style of "At Home at the Zoo," an evening that offers satisfactions on a small and intermittent scale.

At Home at the Zoo By Edward Albee. Directed by Mary B. Robinson. Sets, James Noone; costumes, T. Tyler Stumpf; lighting, Nancy Schertler; sound, Timothy M. Thompson; fight director, Joe Isenberg. About two hours.