'Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo': Theater Review

At Home at the Zoo Production Still 2 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Superb performances enliven these classic and not-so-classic works.

Katie Finneran, Robert Sean Leonard and Paul Sparks star in this double bill of Albee's classic one-act 'The Zoo Story' and its prequel 'Homelife,' written nearly a half-century later.

It's not often that a playwright tinkers with his past work, especially if that work is a certified classic. But that's exactly what Edward Albee did roughly 10 years ago with his 1958 one-act The Zoo Story. Dissatisfied with its thin portrayal of one of the characters, Peter, Albee wrote a one-act prequel, Homelife, nearly a half-century after the original's premiere. The playwright subsequently went even further, updating the setting of The Zoo Story to the present day and controversially decreeing that it could no longer be performed solo but only when paired with the new work. The resulting double bill, originally called Peter and Jerry, now goes under the title Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo, presented here in a superbly acted revival from off-Broadway's Signature Theatre.

Director Lila Neugebauer, whose recent staging of The Wolves garnered critical raves, has assembled a first-rate cast. Robert Sean Leonard (House) and Paul Sparks (seen recently in House of Cards, The Crown and The Greatest Showman) play Peter and Jerry, respectively, and two-time Tony Award winner Katie Finneran (Noises Off; Promises, Promises) is Peter's wife Ann, who figures prominently in Homelife.

Both plays begin with Peter, an upper-class publishing executive, being interrupted while he's intently reading. In Homelife he's sitting in the living room of his well-appointed apartment which, as anyone who's seen Zoo Story knows, he shares with his wife, two daughters, two parakeets and two cats. "We should talk," Ann tells him at the play's beginning, but Peter, immersed in his book, ignores her. In Zoo Story, Peter has retreated to a bench in Central Park where his reading is once again interrupted, this time by an unkempt stranger, Jerry, who suddenly announces, "I've been to the zoo" to Peter, who doesn't hear him at first.

Albee's goal for the prequel was to flesh out Peter, who in Zoo Story is a mostly passive, reactive figure to the far more verbose and aggressive Jerry. Homelife consists entirely of a Sunday afternoon conversation between Peter and his wife that includes such topics as her dream that her breasts have been cut off, his fear that his "penis seems to be retreating" and the state of their sex life, which Ann finds satisfying on an emotional but not animalistic level. Peter attempts to explain his sexual restraint by telling her a painful story involving an ill-fated sexual encounter during college. As the play ends, he informs Ann, "It's a nice day, maybe I'll go to the park and read there."

Many theatergoers will know what happens next. Peter's upper-crust decorum is shattered by Jerry, whose initially friendly if intrusive conversation eventually takes on a far more menacing tone. At the play's conclusion, Peter is goaded into an act of violence that has fateful consequences for both men.

The main question regarding Albee's reconfigured pairing is whether the prequel enhances the impact of Zoo Story. The answer is, not so much, really. Homelife feels like a minor work, one that displays flashes of Albee's brilliance at crafting wittily incisive dialogue. But it mainly proves discursive and insubstantial. Yes, we learn more about Peter, but not so much that it significantly alters our perception of him from the earlier play. The prequel provides further riffs on Zoo Story's societal and personal themes, but in far less visceral fashion. Albee's decision to update Zoo Story also feels unfortunate; jarring anachronisms have the ironic effect of making the play feel more dated than it actually is.

Nonetheless, it's a fascinating double bill, and it's not like theatergoers have a choice in the matter anyway. This staging benefits greatly from the terrific performances. Leonard, whose preppy good looks seem to forever consign him to playing mild-mannered men, acutely conveys Peter's inability to be comfortable in his own skin. Finneran (seen on Netflix's Bloodline) infuses Ann with a delightful sauciness, milking her arch dialogue for all its comic richness. And Sparks is a force of nature as the animalistic but canny Jerry, who handles Peter with the casual, cruel playfulness of a cat toying with a mouse. It's a showoff part for any actor, to be sure, but Sparks brings a particularly mesmerizing combination of malevolence and humor to it. His is an acting tour-de-force that provides reason enough for this revival.

Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Katie Finneran, Robert Sean Leonard, Paul Sparks
Playwright: Edward Albee
Director: Lila Neugebauer
Set designer: Andrew Lieberman
Costume designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Sound designer: Bray Poor
Presented by Signature Theatre