At Home at the Zoo
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Through March 26
As the story goes, someone — a friend, a roommate or a lover — said to Mr. Albee, “Edward, you will be thirty years old tomorrow, and you don’t have a damn thing to show for it.” Stung by this comment, Albee sat down and, overnight, wrote a long one-act about a volatile encounter between two men — a complacent middle class guy named Peter, and an impoverished eccentric named Jerry, on a bench in Central Park. He called it The Zoo Story, and when it was produced Off-Broadway it racked up a substantial run and put Albee on the theatrical map.
When the play was revived by the Second Stage Theatre in New York City in 2007, the company commissioned Albee to write a prequel, called Homelife, and the two plays were produced together. Now The Wallis has joined with Deaf West to present both plays, with deaf actors signing the dialogue, while speaking actors present the text for those of us who don’t understand signing.
Homelife, like The Zoo Story, is a straightforward, relatively realistic diologue, without the tricky and sometimes cryptic metaphysics that mark much of Albee’s other work. It takes a closer look at textbook publisher Peter (Troy Kotsur, voiced by Jake Eberle), the less developed character in The Zoo Story. We see him at home, on a quiet Sunday, with his wife Ann (Amber Zion, voiced by Paige Lindsey White). He’s happily preoccupied with editing his latest textbook, but she wants to talk about the state of their marriage. She admits that it’s a good marriage, and she appreciates his sterling qualities. But she wants more: a bit more risk, a touch of danger, and an endeavor to get in touch with their animal natures. She lures him into exploring the potential darkness within their relationship, and for a moment finds the animal in both herself and him. But he soon flees back to his comfort zone and retreats to the park with his book. As always, Albee’s dialogue is sharp and telling.
Peter settles on his favorite bench, begins to read, and we’re launched into The Zoo Story. His reading is interrupted by the appearance of Jerry (Russell Harvard, voiced by Jeff Alan-Lee.), who announces without preamble, “I’ve been to the zoo.” He regales Peter with a series of bizarre tales about his failed relations with both people and animals. And soon he sets about baiting Peter, trying to goad this placid stranger into killing him. If he succeeds, his troubles will be over, but Peter, who will be saddled with a lifetime of guilt, will have problems that are just beginning.
Director Coy Middlebrooks elicits fine performances from both the signing actors and the speaking ones, melding their disparate efforts into a unity. Kotsur gives us a canny and richly detailed portrait of Peter, and Zion as Ann is wonderfully wanton in her attempts to unleash the fire in Peter’s peace-loving nature. But Harvard’s Jerry is more problematic; he’s so antically flamboyant that he sometimes seems to be competing with the words rather than illuminating them.
One question has always overshadowed The Zoo Story: Why doesn’t Peter just get up and leave rather than submitting to Jerry’s relentless verbal assault? That question remains. Still, the violent ending remains shockingly effective, even if we don’t quite believe it.
Karyl Newman designed the costumes and the stylized sets.
Lovelace Studio Theatre, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. through March 26. (310) 746-4000 or www.TheWallis.org/Zoo. Running time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Note: Tyrone Giordano will play the role of Jerry from March 16 to March 26.