The animal within us – Albee’s At Home At The Zoo!

American Conservatory Theater

Edward Albee wrote the one act play Zoo Story in 1958. It was first performed in 1959 at the Berlin festival in German and the success of the 1960 off-Broadway production firmly established Albee as a uniquely honest voice among the playwrights of America. Zoo Story dealt with the emptiness in everyday life and the anger it can engender in people. It also contrasted the life of the complacent to that of those living on the edge. “I’ve been to the Zoo. I said I’ve been to the Zoo. MISTER, I’VE BEEN TO THE ZOO!!!!” screams the on-edge Jerry to the calm and phlegmatic Peter. And then proceeds to talk about anything but the zoo, all the while edgily circling the park bench Peter is sitting on. And we hear a lot from Jerry on what exactly is bothering him about his existence, while Peter is the perfect foil, rich, married, with two daughters, two cats and two parakeets! There are animals all around Jerry, and we are not talking of just the landlady’s black dog – he describes the landlady’s heaving bloated body as she tries to corner him every time she sees him. So the alienation and anger that is part of Jerry’s life was amply clear to readers and theater goers from 1960 onward, and Zoo story remains one of Albee’s most significant plays.
zoo story
But who was the mousy and affluent Peter? Albee felt the need to revisit Peter, as Peter was only seen through Jerry eyes and dealt with rather contemptuously. So in 2004 (46 years after penning Zoo Story) he wrote a “prequel”, a one act play called Homelife which shows Peter in his perfect off-white, clinically clean, and ordered Upper East Side apartment, interacting with his perfect wife Ann. In this perfect environment Ann is an insomniac who is crying out for MORE in her life. And is not afraid to vocalize all her yearnings to the husband with whom she never has conversations! Things chug along in the edgy but somewhat usual way, and then take that unexpected and brutal turn peculiar to Albee, but now familiar to us from plays like The Goat where the protagonist has an affair with, yes, a GOAT! But despite this foreknowledge of Albee’s work one is still stunned by the revelations that the unassuming and staid Peter makes to his wife! And then wanders off to the park to sit on a bench and encounter Jerry – who has just come from the ZOO!

Albee has now decreed that the Zoo Story can only be produced with its companion piece preceding – and calls the two act play At Home At The Zoo. So does this first act merely add to The Zoo Story or does it change it? In this rewriting Albee makes a few significant changes to The Zoo Story – he modernizes some references – Peter now earns $200k a year, and the popular novelist is Stephen King! But most importantly the bit where Jerry says “”You’ll read about it in the papers tomorrow, if you don’t see it on your TV tonight.” is now absent. In earlier versions of Zoo Story this was interpreted to mean that either Jerry had freed some animals at the zoo, or that he was seriously contemplating taking his own life. Now it seems that his handing a knife to Peter and then eventually impaling himself on it, may not have been premeditated. What if it was not the neurotic and edgy Peter that Jerry met? What if it was some jocular type? Would they end up parting ways amicably or even heading to the nearest bar? So telling us about Peter and making him more well defined, almost seems intended to increase the ambiguities within the Jerry character. And Peter also becomes the character that ties two acts together and is thus way more significant than Jerry, who was the focal point in Zoo Story. Is this also tied into the times in his life when Albee wrote the two halves? As a young man he gave us Jerry, full of disenchantment with life and angst; as an established, distinguished, and well recognized playwright he gives us Peter, a man who is settled into an affluent but unsettled life!

The play has two static sets but director Rebecca Bayla Taichman manages to keep us throughly engaged by having the edgy Ann and the manic Jerry move around this static setting. Renee Augeson is perfect as the ever needy but somewhat shallow Ann, who has no clue what is seething beneath the surface of her husband’s apparently placid exterior. Anthony Fusco delights as Peter – he is mousy and dull until the climax of act one and then the scales fall from our eyes. This allows us to see him in act two as we would never have seen him in the stand alone Zoo Story. Manoel Fileciano as Jerry is manic and loud at times, but perhaps the part does require some of the loudness. All in all At Home At The Zoo is vintage Albee, maybe not as shocking as Who is Sylvia, or The Goat, but close enough to tell us that the Albee of the 60s has further sharpened his skills at shocking us to the core with the edgy side of life. Well worth a watch.


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