Playwright Rule No. 1: Never lead off your career with a masterpiece.
Caused big trouble for Joseph Kesselring*, and some trouble for Beckett and Miller.
Edward Albee had to deal with a double dose for his Zoo Story (1959) and Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962).
Playwright Rule No. 2: Learn to walk away from every play. Just be done with it.
I can tell you from painful personal experience that the inability to conclude an artistic effort is a playwright’s most insidious foe. As Picasso was accredited with saying:
A work of art is never finished, only abandoned.
Tennessee Williams could never, just, walk away from Orpheus Descending, and Albee it seems, towards the end of his life, felt that Zoo Story was in some fashion incomplete. Hence the Deaf West Theatre production of At Home at the Zoo; which just enjoyed a staging at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts; one of the newer and most delightful venues of L.A.
With this play, Albee has taken the one act Zoo Story and added a prequel called Homelife. **
So now the Albee work starts with Peter (Troy Kotsur) and Ann (Amber Zion), and a marriage in trouble. As with most of Albee’s major pieces the theme revolves around passion and fantasy and how they are fused by some as a means of breaking the isolation of self.
The first act finds Peter, a publishing executive, at home with his wife in the lovely apartment they share with “two daughters, two cats and two parakeets.” The action starts as Ann tries to pry her book-bound publisher husband out of his “head” and into the flesh: first coyly and then with growing desperation.
Briefly, Peter seems to free himself, as they engage in role-playing that is sexual in nature, but Peter is one moth that can’t stand the heat of the flame and pulls back. With the iron manacles of conventionality firmly secured back in place, Peter casually announces his escape to Central Park to continue reading, and the first act ends with his and Ann’s apartment breaking apart into the wilds of the park. Now with leaving his sanctuary of “two daughters, two cats and two parakeets” Peter becomes a Noah surrendering to the storm.
The second act serves to confront him with, perhaps, the greatest tempest on stage since Shakespeare’s days. Here the storm rages in the person of Jerry (Russell Harvard). The play, both in the original version and here in its new incarnation, reveals little about Jerry. He is a man apart. Whether we can believe his story of a trip to the zoo with which he first engages Peter is moot.
What is real is his isolation, his desperation to communicate and his inability to; which eventually leads to his suicide by impaling himself on a knife which he has manipulated Peter into holding.
Albee filled his works with biblical references, and At Home At the Zoo is a fine example. There is the Noah imagery—that of Cain and Abel between Peter and Jerry—and finally the last moment of the piece with Jerry bleeding to death on the park bench, uttering the play’s last line, “Oh…my…God”, a perfect Albee image of how we are all crucified by our own loneness.
For those not familiar with the Deaf West Theatre, the performers are all, as the company name suggests, hearing impaired. Generally, you have, either off-side or cleverly immersed in the staging itself, speaking actors. If this sounds, (sorry, no pun intended) off-putting to you, it shouldn’t.
This company has produced some of the best theatre to come out of Los Angeles, such as their dazzling revival of the rock musical Spring Awakening with music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater which they took from the depths of downtown L.A. to Broadway with acclaim gathered all the way along the route.
Here the company shows its greatest strength, which is in the caliber of the acting talent they present.
Kotsur and Zion are both heartbreaking in their inability to find union in their “life together,” and Harvard as Jerry personifies, to perfection, the storm we expose ourselves to whenever venturing outside our ark.
The “voices” in the case of the “home,” are situated stage left behind an assemblage reflective of the caging found at a zoo, and for the “zoo” displayed in a mirrored representation of the primary action; here Jake Eberle (voice of Peter), Paige Lindsey White (voice of Ann) and Jeff Alan-Lee (voice of Jerry) excel in the very difficult and demanding task of providing the hearing audience with voices, while maintaining invisibility to them as well.
Under Coy Middlebrook’s direction there was little if anything to find fault with in the production.
However for me, it was Albee’s effort that didn’t ring true, I suppose because I couldn’t perceive the reason for linking the two plays.
Homelife benefits undeniably from the partnership, yet it doesn’t feel to me that Zoo Story profits from the arrangement, an arrangement not creatively parasitical but definitely not dramatically symbiotic.
As a one act, the isolation of Zoo Story, again for me, heightens its theatrical tension on two levels.
First there is nothing to dilute the piece’s dramatic impact.
Secondly, and of more importance, in isolating the work, Peter’s own sense of isolation is imposed on the audience itself.
In a metropolitan setting, in the brightness of day, in a sprawling urban park, on a public bench, Peter’s world is exterminated when confronted by the inexplicable randomness of that chaos which is life.
There were some in the audience, the night I attended who, I am sure, could not find a reflection of their own lives in those of Peter and Ann. I doubt there were any who, on some level, didn’t recognize within themselves the isolation inherit in the tale of Peter and Jerry.
Life is a chaos we always face alone, even when among a throng of others.
Zoo Story is a work in no need of a fuse or a cleanup; it is pure explosion.
A word to the wise, catch some future production of Deaf West Theatre, and be sure, at one point, to enjoy the experience of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, your life will be better off for having done both.
♦ ♦ ♦
* Known in some circles as the Joseph Kesselring Curse (as in Arsenic and Old Lace which was then followed by ten flops)
** Originally entitled Peter and Jerry it opened Off Broadway on November 11, 2007. In 2009 the re-titled work, Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo opened in Philadelphia.
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