- Chief New York Theatre Critic
“Hey, I got news for you, as they say. I'm on your precious bench, and you're never going to have it for yourself again.” – Jerry to Peter
Was anyone putting the disparity between “the one percent” and the remaining “ninety-nine percent” under the cultural microscope in the late 1950s? The Baby Boomers were booming and most believed the middle-class was firmly entrenched in an ever-expanding story of financial success. Unfortunately, not enough attention was being paid to the underbelly of this post-war ebullience nor to those clinging to that nether portion of the socio-economic divide.
One of those “paying attention” was playwright Edward Albee whose first play “The Zoo Story” (written in 1958 and first produced in Berlin in 1959) “explores themes of isolation, loneliness, miscommunication as anathematization, social disparity and dehumanization in a materialistic world.” In the absurdist play, currently running as Act Two of Edward Albee’s “At Home at the Zoo,” textbook publisher Peter (Robert Sean Leonard) joins in a rambling repartee with Jerry (Paul Sparks) who approaches Peter on a park bench to announce he had “been to the zoo.” One has the feeling this is not the first time Jerry has told this story; however, this is the first (and last) time Jerry manages to seduce his listener into doing what Jerry has desired for quite some time.
Paul Sparks delivers a scintillating performance as Jerry who has “come to a great weariness” and has discovered a conniving means to a desirable end. The lithe, leering Jerry he creates seduces Peter from his Upper East Side comfort zone and brings him to the brink (and beyond) of ego strength dissolution. Robert Sean Leonard’s Peter provides a perfect foil to Jerry, first replying to the intruder with his bookish weltanschauung and then succumbing to Jerry’s psychological attacks. Mr. Sparks and Mr. Leonard skillfully navigate the playwright’s cat-and-mouse game bringing it to a horrific and somewhat unexpected ending. The audience hangs on Mr. Sparks’ every word as he describes Jerry’s living situation and his descent into isolation and dehumanization and draws Peter further into his maelstrom of despair and unrepentant rage.
That rage is expressed in Jerry’s existential challenge to Peter’s complacency. “You don't even know what you're saying, do you? This is probably the first time in your life you've had anything more trying to face than changing your cats' toilet box. Stupid! Don't you have any idea, not even the slightest, what other people need?” The irony here is that Jerry can get exactly what he needs from Peter on
But what happened to Peter just before he headed out of his house to sit in the nearby Central Park on his favorite bench? Why did his encounter with Jerry unnerve him so? How could he allow Jerry’s rambling story about why he visited the zoo provoke him to resort to “animal” behavior? Those answers come in “Homelife” which Mr. Albee wrote in 2004 as the first act to “The Zoo Story” and intended to be performed only with the earlier play.
To be clear, the audience (unless formerly familiar to “The Zoo Story”) does not know about Peter’s encounter with Jerry but learns Peter’s back-story – the back-story Jerry later teases from Peter’s life of denial and uses to “win him over” to his seditious plot.” “Homelife” is the story of Peter and his wife Ann (Katie Finneran) and their family of daughters and pets. Katie Finneran’s Ann, like Jerry in “The Zoo Story,” needs to talk to Peter about something he’d rather avoid. She is as isolated from Peter and her sense of self as Jerry is from society. Their conversation covers everything from Peter’s circumcision and Ann’s possible diagnosis of cancer to the couple’s somewhat unsatisfying (at least to Ann) sex life – and all things in between. Like the conversation with Jerry later, this encounter opens a Pandora’s Box of disharmony, disillusionment, denial, and destruction. Under Lila Neugebauer’s capable direction, the three actors distill Edward Albee’s characters with authenticity and believability. No captives are taken here in this brilliant battle for survival, personhood, and forgiveness in two oddly similar zoos.
AT HOME AT THE ZOO
The cast “At Home at the Zoo” includes Katie Finneran, Robert Sean Leonard, and Paul Sparks.
The creative team includes Andrew Lieberman (Scenic Design), Kaye Voyce (Costume Design), Japhy Weideman (Lighting Design), Bray Poor (Sound Design), UnkleDave’s Fight House (Fight Direction). David Lurie-Perret is the Production Stage Manager. Casting by Caparelliotis Casting. Production photos by Joan Marcus.
“At Home at the Zoo” runs through Sunday March 25th, 2018 on The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues). For further information, please visit https://www.signaturetheatre.org/. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.
Photo: Paul Sparks and Robert Sean Leonard. Credit: Joan Marcus.