Review of Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    February 22, 2018
    Review by:
    Constance Rodgers

    In 2001 Edward Albee wrote the drawing room one act play, Homelife, as an opening to The Zoo Story, his 1958 brutal one act classic. Seeing The Zoo Story on it's own you wonder why does Peter, an upper middle class publisher, husband and father, stay in the park and interact with Jerry, a disenfranchised, loner and boarding house occupant. Homelife supplies the answer.

    In both one acts Peter (Robert Sean Leonard) is acted upon by people experiencing more discontent than he could ever imagine. Peter's wife, Ann (Latie Finneran) and Jerry (Paul Sparks), a stranger Peter encounters in Central Park, question their lives and their happiness. Peter does not. He is content, and though he can not understand or share in Ann's and Jerry's musings on their lives and respective feelings of boredom and alienation, Peter is kind and listens.

    In Homelife Peter's wife, Ann, drags him into a conversation with the fateful words women often utter - “We should talk”. Ann wants more chaos in their orderly life. Peter responds, “How would we go about it?” It is obvious Peter can not muster enough energy and passion to bring chaos into their life. Ann also wants animal sex. She assures Peter he is a good lover but she is not talking about love making. She is talking about “bad sex”. Peter reveals he once had, he thinks, the kind of sex she speaks of. Ann explains she doesn't want to be physically hurt, and the couple's tentative exploration into a life with more surprise ends. Peter and Ann verbally sparr as brilliantly as George and Martha (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) with Albee's signature speed and biting humor but devoid of the malice of George and Martha. If there is pain in Peter and Ann's relationship it is not caused by the other; it is the unavoidable angst of life – why are we here? As the song goes - “Is that all there is?”

    In The Zoo Story, Peter, after having the talk with Ann that she wanted, goes to Central Park to read and relax. However, Peter's solitude is interrupted by Jerry, a disheveled, hyper, stranger who wants to tell someone about his visit to the zoo. Peter and Jerry briefly share basic information about themselves, like two strangers meeting at a bar, but in short time Jerry's need to be heard takes over and Peter obliges, listening attentively. Jerry's life is hard and lonely. Unlike Ann's, Jerry's pain is palpable. It is not existential angst or mere boredom that he struggles with. It is the everyday brutal and ugly humiliations that crowd the lives of the alienated poor, the losers in life. When Jerry says to Peter, “I bet you have a TV.” we laugh. But it's not funny. Jerry has nothing to live for; Peter, who is kind and has so much, cannot even give up his park bench so that Jerry can possess something, win at something. In the end it is Jerry who is kind, allowing Peter to live, maybe with a little more guilt, but without suffering any real consequences.

    Robert Sean Leonard, Katie Finneran and Paul Sparks all provide a deep understanding of and respect for the characters they play. I felt like I was spying on two very private scenes.

    Andrew Lieberman's set design is fabulously sparse. Walls and floors that imply chaos, madness, anger, pain but the furnishings are calm, ordinary, a chair and lamp in Homelife and park benches in The Zoo Story. Our attention is on the words spoken, the cadence of the language, the inflection of emotion. And the stark difference between Peter's life and Jerry's.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)


    What the popular press says...

    "First performed on a double bill with the earlier play at Second Stage in 2007, “Homelife” now emerges, in a revival that opened on Wednesday night at the Signature Theater, as more than just the other half of an eggshell, jaggedly interlocking. Lila Neugebauer’s terrific production proves it to be an indispensably excellent work in its own right, and a suitable tribute to the playwright, who died in 2016."
    Jesse Green for New York Times

    "Three winning performances show off each work to its best advantage. Leonard nails Peter's mild-mannered calm and the storm beneath it. Sparks is spiky as required as Jerry. Finneran brings so much smarts, humor, vulnerability and a subtle jagged edge to Ann that you can't take eyes or ears off of her."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "Thanks to the diamondlike brilliance of Paul Sparks in Zoo, the show is unmissable."
    Helen Shaw for Time Out New York

    "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."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - New York Daily News - Time OutHollywood Reporter