By John Quinn
The first line of “At Home at the Zoo” is “We should talk.” That’s deliberately misleading. There’s a lot of talk; what we have here is the oft-quoted “failure to communicate,” but there’s so much more.
Edward Albee, arguably America’s greatest living playwright, runs with that theme into dark, untapped regions of the human psyche, exploring the fundamental relationships that form personality. As is suitable in a play by the father of Theater of the Absurd in the U. S., the trip is sometimes amusing, sometimes disturbing, but always disorienting. Directors Barton Bund and Lynch Travis bring sense and sensibility to this rather schizophrenic work for the Detroit Ensemble Theatre – located, in point of fact, in Ferndale.
“At Home at the Zoo” had an unusual genesis. Act II, only slightly re-written, is Albee’s very first play – the 1959 one-act “The Zoo Story.” That has become one of the classics of the American theater, regardless of the fact that Albee sensed from the beginning that something was missing. Albee is intensely protective of his work, and ignored the temptation to tinker with the script. In 2009, when Hartford Stage in Connecticut commissioned a new one-act to be done with ”The Zoo Story,” Albee took the opportunity to fill in the blanks with a prequel entitled, “Home Life.” The fact that the second act is 50 years older than the first accounts for the sensation that the two are out of sync. As the playwright has matured, his outlook has mellowed. That, though, does not detract from a compelling evening of drama.
“Home Life” opens in an apartment somewhere in Manhattan’s East 70s. Peter (Joseph Fournier) and Ann (Eva Rosenwald) are a successful middle-class couple. They have two daughters, two cats, two parakeets, two TVs, two microwaves. But after 20 years of marriage, how well do they really know each other? Ann’s ominous opening, “We should talk,” reveals that their comfortable life is based on unexpressed compromise and concealed emotion. Their life, says Ann, is too tame; it should be shaken by chaos, disorder and madness. The quirky conversation remains pretty tentative – a recurring theme of “thinking about thinking about doing something” is a case in point – but we grasp that this couple is breaking new ground in honesty. Peter, very much at peace with the world, decides to adjourn to his favorite bench in Central Park for a few hours of light reading.
At the opening of the second act, “The Zoo Story,” Peter’s “me time” is interrupted by Jerry (Steven O’Brien), the very embodiment of chaos, disorder and madness. Jerry is a social outcast, starved for attention, and given to long narrations about his life. His increasingly intrusive and pushy – literally – behavior leaves each of us wondering where our individual breaking point would come. When do you tell an annoying stranger to scram? Peter waits too long, with grim results.
Thus we come to the missing piece in Albee’s puzzle. When played alone, “The Zoo Story” is strictly Jerry’s play. Peter is merely the sounding board to Jerry’s increasingly psychotic rants. All we know about him is in the reserved comments he divulges to Jerry’s onslaught of questions. Peter needed a more complete personality to explain why this guy just didn’t close his book and go home 30 seconds after Jerry appeared. The audience now has a better understanding of this emotionally repressed, painfully polite specimen of the middle-class, and how social convention can turn to animalistic territoriality in a flash of anger.
This production works because both directors and actors have blended some of the disconnections between the acts. Fournier and Rosenwald have a very measured, even first act, where the silences are as eloquent as the dialogue. This is in contrast to O’Brien’s antsy, deranged monologues in the second act, where Fournier becomes less a participant than a victim. But since his established character carries through, the climax of the play seems inevitable.
Although the production is appealing to any culturally aware audience, “At Home at the Zoo” is raw meat for the intellectual carnivores of American theater. Juicy debates are possible over whether Albee, able to expand on “The Zoo Story,” SHOULD have done so. Does the new version compliment, or diminish the original? Are the two acts too dissimilar to be considered a whole play?
We have the playwright’s own take on the issue. In a 2004 New York Times interview Albee opined, “I think, on the whole, asymmetry is probably better.” I think I’ll go along with that.
‘At Home at the Zoo’
Detroit Ensemble Theatre at Michigan Actors Studio, 648 E. 9 Mile Rd., Ferndale, Friday-Sunday through April 1. 100 minutes. $18. 248-270-8440. http://www.detroitensembletheatre.org