This is the story of how Peter (Jeff Allin) learned that he was an animal. It took Edward Albee, now generally considered the world’s greatest living playwright, about a month to write the second Act, which he produced separately under the title The Zoo Story and which launched his sensational career. But Home Life, the first Act, didn’t make its appearance until nearly fifty years later. Taken together, and given a spot-on, virtuoso production, we get a powerful, profound view of the consequences of living without passion from someone whose artistic instincts have been reinforced through a half-century of passionate theater.
Unfortunately, we don’t get that production from Arena – not yet, anyway. Home Life, as delicate as spun glass, is an afternoon in the life of a couple on the verge of lifelessness. Peter is an executive in a textbook company, and Ann (Colleen Delany) is an intelligent, articulate woman, but they have nothing to say to each other, and say it incessantly. There’s no hostility; Peter and Ann are much more polite than George and Martha, [of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?] and they work in obliviousness, not pain. “Once I talked to you for…it seemed like minutes,” Ann says, “and you didn’t hear a word. You were reading.”
Peter reads a lot. As the play opens he is reading an immense tone – “the most boring book we’ve ever published,” he promises. He is willing to put it aside to talk with Ann, but you know that he will never be too far from his library, and by the end of the Act he is off to the park with another book. Ann’s business in Home Life is to pull him from his wordy universe and into the carnal carnivorousness of the real world; she only dimly understands her own purpose, but she plows ahead nonetheless.
Peter is a good provider, a considerate lover and a thoroughly decent man. But Ann wants to smell some of the world’s danger on him; a whiff of chaos, of selfishness, of unquenchable animal spirit. And this is way out of Peter’s comfort zone. When Ann uses a common vulgarity, Peter recoils; when she asks who would hear, their daughters upstairs listening to music, he responds, querulously, “me?”
This is a difficult thing to pull off, because it requires – to steal a phrase from Albee – a delicate balance between vitality and torpor. To engage us, Peter needs to be more than a man asleep; he must also be a man trying to wake up. He must be aware of his failings; aware that there is a life out there that he could embrace if only he could find the key; and in so being remind us of what our own inhibitions cost us.
Albee gives his actors the tools to create this Peter. But Director Mary Robinson’s production errs on the side of torpor. Allin, a fine actor seen here in roles as diverse as Trey in Bal Masque and Paul in Permanent Collection, plays Peter as a slave to inertia, and his dialogue with Ann sounds tempered and unspontaneous, as though they were only dating. When, toward the end of the Act, they share a brief moment of fantasy and whimsy (the camera negative of the dark fantasy George and Martha shared) it seems to come from nowhere, instead of from the careful progression that Albee laid out for them.
The torpor continues into the second Act – the recontextualized Zoo Story – notwithstanding a marvelous performance by James McMenamin as Jerry, the third leg of this three-legged stool. Jerry is a down-and-outer, of uncertain employment, who lives in some miserable boardinghouse on the Upper West Side, but he speaks the high language, and he describes his own fantastic adventures memorably. He is the man full of chaos and animal instincts that Ann longed, briefly, for Peter to be.
As tattered as Jerry is, and as exotic as his stories are, he serves Peter as a vessel of prophecy. He teaches, in vivid and unmistakable terms, the truth of Elie Wiesel’s maxim: the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. McMenamin gives Jerry a vaguely rustic air, as though he were a sly country boy amazed at the fools who have succeeded in the big city, and eventually we understand that Jerry will make Peter recognize the animal within him whether he likes it or not.
The problem, here and elsewhere, is that we don’t know whether Peter likes it or not. Allin is passionate, defensive or embarrassed as the text calls for him to be at the appropriate moment, but when Jerry unleashes his torrents of words – and he has a couple of very long monologues – Peter seems largely blank. Allin is too good an actor for this to be anything but a deliberate choice, but I respectfully submit that it is not the correct choice, because it makes Peter’s subsequent actions more difficult to understand.
Does this mean that you should avoid this show? Of course not. McManamin’s performance alone is worth the price of admission, but for no additional charge you get Albee’s gorgeous language, the astonishing tales in The Zoo Story, and (and this is the best part of any theater experience) some hard-won truths. And, if at the end of the show you decide, just for a little while, to be a bad boy, or a bad girl, you’ll have Mr. Albee to thank.
At Home at the Zoo is part of Arena Stage’s Edward Albee Festival,
presenting all published works by Edward Albee.
At Home at the Zoo
By Edward Albee
Directed by Mary Robinson
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour; 45 minutes, with one intermission
- Patrick Folliard . Washington Blade
- Barbara MacKay . Washington Examiner
Jenn Larsen . WeLoveDC
- Bob Mondello . Washington City Paper
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Kate Wingfield . MetroWeekly
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway