Do You Mind if I Ask You Questions?

In 2004, nearly a half-century after its debut, Edward Albee decided to revise The Zoo Story, adding a first act that would “flesh out Peter fully.”  Without struggle and all of a sudden, Homelife “fell from my mind to the page … intact.”  The result, At Home at the Zoo, is receiving its first New York revival courtesy of the Signature Theatre Company.

Homelife, I dare say, is even better than its sequel, a lovely and perceptive depiction of a couple who have had, more or less, a comfortable time of it.  Ann (Katie Finneran) comes into the living room to talk to Peter (Robert Sean Leonard) about something—but she soon forgets what.  Nevertheless, their conversation veers into a reflection on their lives together, and Ann admits that sometimes his love is just not enough.  Peter, who struggles to say the word “penis” aloud, and who is at his most emotional when declaring, “God, I love symmetry,” responds thoughtfully: “I thought we made a decision … that what we wanted was a smooth voyage on a safe ship.”  Those who know Albee’s characters for their drunken brawls or bestial extramarital affairs may be surprised, but Homelife serves as a tender coda to a rich career; the dialogue is as sharp as ever, but the tone melancholic and affectionate.  He may, in fact, be the twentieth century’s great dramatist on the subject of love.

This is accompanied, of course, by The Zoo Story, in which Peter is confronted in Central Park by a fairly typical—if slightly more verbose—New York City loony, Jerry (Paul Sparks).  The pair are perfectly cast: Mr. Leonard as the repressed pedant who clings to his Library of America hardback for dear life, Mr. Sparks as the manic vagrant who is endlessly circling Peter’s bench, forcing him to constantly shift his position in order to follow him.  Mr. Sparks’ Jerry is cagey and mercurial, always ready to exploit Peter’s class guilt to extend their conversation; his physical acting, inventive, never relying on gestural clichés, superb.  Unfortunately, Ms. Finneran is rather weak, relying too frequently on indication.  As a result, you can hear the writing in Albee’s language.

I’m not sure Homelife and The Zoo Story come together to make a cohesive two-act play; they feel, rather, like two one-acts about the same character.  But who cares?  When the writing is this meticulous, when the acting this effortless, I won’t be the one to complain.

At Home at the Zoo runs through March 25th at the Irene Diamond Stage.  480 W. 42nd Street  New York, NY.  2 hours.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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