At Home at the Zoo
By Edward Albee
Directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman
American Conservatory Theater
June 7-July 5, 2009
Photo: Kevin Berne
When iconic American playwright Edward Albee first flared like a comet on the world stage he was a mere 30 years old. The play was “The Zoo Story.” Now, some 50 years and three Pulitzer Prizes later, the octogenarian author of “Three Tall Women,” “A Delicate Balance,” “Seascape” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” has revisited his initial triumph, writing a prequel to the one act “Zoo Story” and presenting the whole as a full-length play entitled “At Home at the Zoo.” Commissioned in 2004 by the Hartford (Connecticut) Stage the augmented work is making its West Coast debut at American Conservatory Theater (ACT) with a crackerjack cast, deftly directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman. ACT regulars Anthony Fusco and Rene Augesen play Peter, an affluent (and boring) publishing executive, and Ann, his vaguely discontented wife in “Homelife,” the first of the two acts. Peter will return in Act Two as the foil for New York actor Manoel Felciano’s manic drifter, the guy who has been to the zoo.
No one mixes hilarity with menace better than Albee and, while “At Home at the Zoo” is not quite the heady cocktail of “Virginia Woolf,” the new act both foreshadows and explains the shocking events of “Zoo Story.” It opens in the stunningly sterile East Side Manhattan apartment shared by Peter and Ann (scenic design by Robert Brill). Peter is reading – as a publisher, we are told, he almost always reading. Ann enters on that terrifying line, “We should talk” which becomes a leitmotif throughout the act. Talk they do, about this and that, their two daughters, their pets, the spinach she is cooking for dinner. And underneath it all you sense his buttoned-down reticence and her roiling unhappiness.
Eventually it comes out, as they begin to really talk. Ann longs for a little passion and danger in their comfortable secure relationship. Peter needs to play it safe. He confesses giving into his animal instincts (there is animal imagery throughout the play – birds fly free, cats eat the birds, dogs menace humans) once, long ago, with disastrous results. Retreating in terror from that experience, all he wants now is “a smooth voyage on a safe ship.” But Ann, while admitting she has a good life, wants more – especially in bed. Peter goes out for a walk, his wife goes back to her spinach and the scene is set for “The Zoo Story.”
Although Albee’s venerable, funny, shocking, Absurdist one-act about what happens when two very different men meet on a bench in Central Park still stands as a work apart, it is illuminated by “Homelife.” In “Zoo Story” Peter largely reacts to the words and actions of the voluble and volatile Jerry (Felciano). No derogation intended to Fusco here; he is a great reactor, repression personified. It’s the way the part is written. But, having seen him in the earlier act, we have a sense of who he is and why. His verbal and kinetic responses to Jerry’s kooky flights of paranoia become more interesting. The street noise and birdsong of “Zoo Story” also comment on the silence of Act One (sound by Jake Rodriguez). It is the music of life as opposed to “Homelife” which, despite the fact that we are told there are two cats and two birds and two daughters listening to music somewhere in the house, is played in the silence of a tomb. Perhaps not unintentionally.
Felciano carries the burden of “Zoo Story” and he carries it well. His Jerry is more pitiful than menacing (which helps to explain why Peter listens to him at all, instead of just walking away). It still strains credibility in this day and age of ubiquitous street people but, without it, there would be no play. Jerry’s lengthy aria about a lustful landlady and her bloodthirsty dog is a tour de force. The ending is a shocker, as before, and leaves you wondering what Peter’s life at home will be like now. As it did with “The Goat: or Who is Sylvia?” ACT has brought a splendid, thought-provoking production of Albee to vivid life.