At Home at the Zoo, by Edward Albee. Directed by Eric Hill. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
David Adkins as Peter, Tara Franklin as Ann; photo:Emma Rothenberg-Ware
"Having your breasts hacked off. . ."
Joey Collins as Jerry, David Adkins as Peter; photo:Emma Rothenberg-Ware
There is a type of pain that throws you for a loop-de-loop. There is also a sort of pain that is sufferable because it is familiar. In Edward Albee's composite play, "At Home at the Zoo" the principal character, Peter, experiences both of these. Partly because the first act was written 45 years after the second act which premiered in 1958 and established Albee is a front-runner in the American Playwriting Sweepstakes, this play is a bit disjointed, a leg without a knee in other words. Both the calf and the thigh work wonderfully independently, but that connection gets a bit lost in the point of conjunction.
Act One, also known as "Homelife" is set in the living room of an apartment on East 74th Street in Manhattan, just about four blocks from Central Park where Act Two takes place. It is evening. Peter is reading, intently one must add. His wife, Ann, in a gorgeous lounging outfit wants to engage him in conversation but he is less than interested. Not in chatting, not in sensuality. He has his book. She is making dinner but she would rather pursue a conversation about his indifference. It is that quality that engages us, his seeming lack of interest in what happens around him, what he leaves in his wake. Peter, like so many of Albee's men, is more acted upon than active. When he was first created this quality, or lack of quality, left many questions about what constitutes a man of a certain class. That question is still prevalent in the new, complete edition of "The Zoo Story." As the complete play is now on stage at the Unicorn Theatre on the Berkshire Theatre Group's traditional Stockbridge site, we can see for ourselves the man Albee created so long ago, the man that obsessed the author so many years later and compelled him to write this second play, the new first act.
No one plays a detached human being as well as David Adkins. This actor can be both interested and disinterested in the same moment, with the same line. He can play dark sensuality and an asexual personality with the same face, voice and body at the same time. These are skills he needs in order to play Albee's Peter under Eric Hill's direction. There is a moment in the first act when he is dispassionatly describing to his wife a sexual encounter with another woman and he can only call his sexual member his penis while she throws alternatives at him, of the more common and ordinary variety. Considering that Albee has named this man Peter it is amusing to note that neither of them go to that end of the possibilities. Albee's cleverness is never really predictable and yet every turn and every turn of phrase seems just right and so ordinary.
Tara Franklin plays Ann as a societal seductress, capable of passion but reluctant to show any to her husband. When she does break out of that hard turtle shell within which she sensually lurks it is to become only a modest vixen with heavy opinions on just about everything. Franklin is marvelous in this role, beautiful and fulsome, controlled and controlling, working herself up emotionally to an asexual climax that erupts with a single slap.
She and Adkins play a remarkably unremarkable couple who, seen together at a party, would draw a remark such as "aren't they a stunning couple" which would never be followed up with "I must find out more about them" once they have been engaged. Even though the purpose of the first half of the play is to enlarge on the Peter of Act Two, make him more human and more interesting and identified, Albee really could not stretch Peter much beyond his original conception. It is much like the ones we find in later plays such as "Tiny Alice" and even "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" although the latter play does expand on the intellectual man who cannot bring himself to participate in worldly things.
Joey Collins; photo:Emma Rothenberg-Ware
In the second Act (Zoo Story) Peter has gone into the park to be alone and to read (he is an Executive in the publishing world, specializing in highly technical text books). There he meets Jerry, a semi-psychotic, neurotic and bizarrely focused man from the upper west side of Manhattan who intrudes on Peter's solo solace and ultimately forces a confrontation the likes of which Peter has never imagined let alone experienced before this. Jerry, played wonderfully with a focus that outdoes even Adkins' sense of focus by Joey Collins, is relentless in pursuing a single goal. He wants Peter to be the instrument of his release from torments that we never really witness. Jerry is so good at utilizing his victim in making himself Peter's victim that the natural progression of his goal is masterfully achieved. Collins holds his character like a sling holds a broken arm: there is freedom in the swing, yet the return to homebase is inevitable, painful, and pleasurable. The actor plays the character with incredible confidence. He clearly knows how, when and where his audience will react and he uses what he knows to make us care about the man he plays.
Caring about Jerry is a fool's errance, though. His madness is so apparent from the beginning. Collins never tries to hide that and his interplay with Adkins' Peter is cautiously hilarious, just soft enough to encourage conversation, just odd enough to discourage intimacy, but intimacy rears its head, ugly or pretty - the judgement is your own. Albee has now set this act up to show us more about Peter's issues than Jerry's which is a shift from the original one-act play. What we have learned in Act One about this man is brought into sharper focus in Act Two. Peter now has the center of the stage where in the earlier version Jerry took it and held it. Now, with these fine actors and Eric Hill's vision, they vie for that position trading off moment by moment for the center of attention. This constant shift brings opportunities for both men to shine in their roles.
Randall Parsons two sets tell us what we need to know about the people who occupy them, particularly the first act. David Murin's costumes illuminate the characters wearing them, defining them easily. The lighting by Simon Weisbard is realistic and keeps the oddness a touch at bay. J Hagenbuckle's sound design in the second act is lushly atmospheric. Together the elements of the play work to its advantage.
Eric Hill's sense of alienation comes into play in both acts. In the first act it is a bit dull as it removes us from the two characters even with the passionate playing of Ann by Tara Franklin. I would have liked to see something more between husband and wife. In the second act Hill enriches the alienation with unwanted passions as Jerry pitches his stories with a lack of control that is somewhat surprising and great relief. Peter's reactions, as Adkins gives us them, almost calls for a new third act, a return to that home we do not see again, to that wife we know best in this trio of characters. To see how Peter moves on, how Ann uncovers new truths, how Jerry's crazy intentions alter things is what intrigues me now. Wanting more, to know more and witness more, is the mark of good theater. This show may not please everyone, but it will keep you talking for a long while after the house lights come up.
At Home at the Zoo plays on the Larry Vaber Stage in the Unicorn Theatre. 6 East Street, Stockbridge, MA through August 26. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go on line at berkshiretheatregroup.org.