Jerry (Andrew Polk), a disheveled man with a two-day growth of beard, is walking through Central Park when he discovers Peter (T. Scott Cunningham) reading on a bench. He stares at Peter for a while like a man looking at a takeout menu, and then accosts him aggressively with a stream of questions. Who are you? What are you doing? Where do you live? What do you do for a living? How much do you make? Peter is startled but compelled by good manners to respond to the stranger. He describes his cats and his parakeets; his wife and kids; and the comforts of his tidy life.
Eventually the conversation turns to Jerry; his miserable past and his miserable present; his tiny room in his West Side rooming house with the empty picture frames; his fat drunken landlady, who seeks to press her amorous body against Jerry; and her huge priapetic mastiff, who would like to make a meal out of him. As Peter grows more and more uncomfortable, Jerry tells a long, bizarre story, full of love and violence, to show how he managed to improve his relationship with the dog to one of indifference. He misses the dog’s hatred, Jerry explains, which at least was something. Peter says he has no idea what Jerry is talking about, at which point Jerry flings him from the bench – and when Peter tries to sit down again, takes out a switchblade. This is The Zoo Story, as it was fifty-one years ago: the stunning debut of a young writer named Edward Albee.
It may not have been readily apparent at the time that it was Peter, and not Jerry, who was the mystery in this play, but the passage of time has shown that it is so. Jerry is the sort of desperate emotional nihilist we have come to recognize not just from literature but, sadly, from life as well. Jerry’s bleak existence does not admit of the possibility of joy. He does not hope for success, but only to stave off failure. Finally, the effort proves too much.
But what’s Peter’s story? Why does he respond to Jerry’s overtures, and, once Jerry begins to describe the hideous events in his life, why doesn’t he leave? It was a bad idea to engage in conversation with ominous, rough-dressed strangers in Central Park even in 1958. Why don’t Jerry’s increasingly violent gestures drive Peter back to the safety of his fine Upper East Side apartment? And whatever possesses him to stay and fight when Jerry appropriates his bench?
After four decades of critical acclaim and popular success, Albee was, in 2004, in a position to give us the tools to answer those questions. He did so by crafting an antecedent Act for The Zoo Story, and combining them in a new creation called At Home at the Zoo. It shows Peter (T. Scott Cunningham) in a sort of stasis pod of domestic life, an hour before his fateful trip to Central Park. He and his wife Ann (Susan McKay) are experiencing the weather of the East Coast wealthy: boredom, with the possibility of sex before evening. It is a dream of safety – and it will not be fully punctured until the second Act.
Peter, a textbook publisher, is reading a manuscript which will be, he promises, the most boring they ever published – but he is so absorbed in it that he doesn’t hear Ann talking to him, even when she says the most ominous words woman ever said to man: “We have to talk”.
What they have to talk about is sex, but they are so reticent, so cultured, so damned polite that they keep dipping away from the subject – talking about hard-boiled spinach, say, or the origin of the phrase “fly-by-night.” They have had sex, of course – cultured, polite, reticent sex, without danger or animal noises. But in the bleak Septembers of their lives, they are feeling even this pale imitation slipping away. Ann contemplates having her breasts removed as a prophylactic against cancer. (Or – using Albee’s precise locution, she’s “thinking about thinking about” having them removed). Peter so feels his sexuality in retreat that he imagines his circumcision is reversing, and his foreskin is growing back. Ann puts her finger on the possibility that is flying away from them – that of feeling sex so powerfully that it transforms them, once again, into pure animals for a moment or two – but that possibility is so frightening, so impolite that they both back away in a flurry of apologies.
They do share a final, hysterical conversation – an animal fantasy, full of danger, or the imitation of danger, before lapsing once again into their safe world. You sense it is their final such conversation. “We’re eating ourselves,” Ann says in a post-mortem that sounds post-coital. “We’re eating ourselves.”
Does this new first Act illuminate The Zoo Story, and explain how Peter’s life necessarily made him the accessory to the story’s horrifying climax? In spades, brothers and sisters. In At Home At The Zoo – the new, complete work – Albee is channeling W.H. Auden, who once said:
A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.
* * *
Were he one of the Jonas Brothers, he would have been surrounded by security, and the lobby would be full of his acolytes. But he is only the greatest living playwright in the world, and so he stands, nearly alone, in the lobby, during intermission. Two women of late middle years are expressing their admiration for his work, and he cheerfully signs their programs. While Albee’s characters are often dying of politeness, it is clear that he does not object to the principle of good manners. He meanders back to his seat when the first dimming of the lights signifies the start of the second Act and sits there, eight or so rows back in an aisle seat, smiling, looking interested. How many times has he seen this Act, which is also his first produced play? Dozens? A hundred? His eyes shine as Jerry hovers over Peter, trying to decide whether to speak. As the Act proceeds he grows pensive; moves slightly in his chair, cocks his head quizzically…and then smiles and nods. This play has not lost its capacity to surprise – even its creator.
An interval passes after the close of the play, and now Albee is on stage with Toby Zinman, the principal critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Zinman is an Albee scholar, an experience critic – and a good one – who is not afraid to be controversial (go here to learn more about Zinman’s adventures with the Philadelphia theater community), but she seems anxious, sharing the stage with Albee. “You’ve told me to be an ‘immoderator,'” she says, “so let’s start with…sex.” She edges a little further back in her chair, as if afraid that Albee will bite her.
He does not. With his grown-out Fu Manchu and cowboy boots, Albee looks like the uncle who spent his life having fun while everyone else in the family worked in the insurance business. Sex is fine; he’ll talk about sex…beginning with sex in At Home at the Zoo and then within the larger context of his work and then finally within our lives, the largest context of all. He talks about our paralytic fear of sex; our refusal to acknowledge our animal natures, which always end up getting the better of us.
He talks about money, too – another immoderate subject. The original production of The Zoo Story, he reveals, cost eight thousand dollars to mount; and the first New York production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf cost only forty-two thousand. By way of comparison, the 2005-2007 revival, with Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin, cost a million three. Of course money plays a role in the way theater is developing, he says, and not always a good one.
He gives us little glimpses into his creative life, and what we might next expect from his pen (literally; he writes in longhand). He has two plays in mind; one involves a psychiatrist; and it is hard not to imagine that the psychiatrist is going to take it on the chin. He recounts snippets of his early days; how he was pleased by beautiful art, and thought to be a visual artist; and charmed by great music, and thought he might become a composer. “But I was incompetent,” in those fields, he says with an air of clinical detachment. He says he listens to music while he writes, particularly Bach, and the rhythm of the music – the patterned sound and silence – helps him find the rhythm of the words. He makes comparisons between musical notation and punctuation. A dot after a quarter note adds an extra eighth to it, so that it is three-eighths of a beat, he observes, and so is distinguished from the quarter-length alone in the same way as a semicolon is distinguished from a comma.
He talks about stage directions, and the artistry of precision. He remembers directing a passage in Happy Days where Beckett calls for a two-second pause followed, after some speech, by a three-second pause; as an experiment, he had the actor do the three-second pause where Beckett said two seconds, and the two-second pause where…and, by God, it was wrong!
Someone asks him why, in the second Act, Peter doesn’t just leave when Jerry starts acting crazy. Although Albee seemed to answer that question, and several like it, by writing the new first Act, he seems unperturbed to hear it again. Once, he says, he suggested in rehearsal that if the actor playing Peter felt really uncomfortable with what Jerry was doing on stage he get up and leave. Under the threat of such a possibility – a possibility which would have been real had they really been in Central Park – the actor playing Jerry would invent the sort of persona needed to keep Peter in the room.
A schoolteacher asks him how she can get her students to understand that going to the theater will give them a different experience than reading scripts. Have them see the plays in their heads, says Albee, and you can see him seeing his plays in his head – not just the part on stage, but afterward, when Peter comes home to Ann with the terrible burden of the day’s events in his heart, and later, when they are in bed, awake, silent, afraid. A Bach fugue plays in the background.
* * *
It’s not my purpose to review Philadelphia theater, except to observe that the production done by Philadelphia Theatre Company does Albee’s work justice, and that Albee himself seemed pleased. Cunningham in particular gives a complex, layered performance as Peter; he stays barely this side of passive-aggressive, and the violence hidden behind his politeness is palpable. At one point Peter tells Ann about a horrible event which happened while he was a college; Cunningham does such a good job in establishing his ambiguous character that I couldn’t tell whether Peter is making this story up or not.
Polk also brings an unusual amount of subtlety to a character who is more generally played with strutting machismo. He still carries his sense of danger with him, but it is a rounder, more elegant thing, and Polk emphasizes Jerry’s needier aspects, thus making the climax more important. I do not know if the new first Act compels this more nuanced performance, or if this is something Polk brings to the dance himself, but I liked it.
The Philadelphia Theatre Company operates in the Suzanne Roberts Theatre at 480 South Broad Street. The production is in a beautiful space, comfortably large, with good sightlines and acoustics. The seats are also comfortably large, which is increasingly a premium with me. There is good theater outside of Washington and New York, and I’m glad I took this trip, and saw this provocative play.
At Home At the Zoo
By Edward Albee
Directed by Mary Robinson
Produced by Philadelphia Theatre Company
Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.
When: until April 19. Tuesdays and Thursdays through Saturdays at 8. Wednesdays be at 7. Sundays will be at 3. Additional 1 p.m. matinees on Wednesdays and 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays.
Where: The Philadelphia Theatre Company in the Suzanne Roberts Theatre at 480 S. Broad Street,