Monday, June 22, 2009

"Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

Perhaps a writer's greatest dream is to get the opportunity to revisit a story he has written years earlier, in order to discover what has happened to those characters he created when he himself was much younger. The great American playwright Edward Albee got that chance in 2004 when he was commissioned to write a companion piece for a mounting of his first published play "The Zoo Story" (1958). He created a one-act called "Homelife," which was a prequel to the events pictured in Zoo Story, with a fleshing-out of the major character Peter, so the audience would be able to better understand Peter's motivation in the earlier play. Later, Albee combined both plays into one and retitled it "Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo."

As Act One opens, we see a comfortable living room, with white walls and white, upholstered furniture. The sense is of comfort and tidiness: everything is in place.

Peter (Anthony Fusco) sits on the sofa reading a manuscript. Ann (Rene Augesen) enters and says "We have to talk." Peter, engrossed in his reading, does not hear her. From here we gradually see Ann's dilemma: she seeks excitement, while Peter appears happy with keeping things the way they are.

This is not a new concept -- except Edward Albee is writing the dialogue. Although "Zoo Story" was written three years before his iconic "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff," and there is little of that vicious spleen to be vented here between Peter and Ann, everything either of them says can be taken in a number of ways. Peter asks Ann: "Aren't you happy?" Ann says "I'm happy," and moves to the far end of the sofa to hang her head.

In Act Two there are no pauses -- but in Act one the pauses are memorable. Each character is trapped in silence, as he or she tries to figure out what to say next. Peter tells Ann a story about his college days, when he performed an act of which he has ever since been deeply ashamed, and then puts on his jacket to go for a walk in the park. The door opens onto a deep, green light, as Act One ends.

Act Two, the original "Zoo Story," opens onto that green light, as Peter once again sits trying to read, this time on a bench in Central Park. (Albee had to modernize several details to reflect the passage of 46 years -- Stephen King is mentioned instead of the original J.P. Marquand, and Peter's salary has been upped from $18,000 a year to $200,000.)

Jerry (Manoel Feliciano) suddenly appears. He is clearly unhinged, but Peter appears oblivious to that fact. Jerry is exceptionally literate, if filled with fury, and the story he tells Peter has enough appeal to keep him listening.

Twice, Jerry repeats a phrase which seems to sum up the entire evening: "It's one of those things a person has to do; sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly."

In other words, one has to work hard to rid oneself of the comfortable present and confront the more exciting future.

These three A.C.T. actors are exceptional, as they always are. A lesser actress might make Ann's dilemma feel silly -- Augesen infuses her with composure that polishes her confusion. Feliciano's Jerry is quite an acting tour de force -- there are lots of words and emotions to convey -- but here the story seems to date itself a bit. (Perhaps in 1958 someone would have remained sitting on a park bench while a crazy man ranted at them -- gee, look! A crazy man! How novel! Let's see what he has to say! -- but in 2009 we wonder why Peter doesn't just go find another bench.) Still, Jerry has an answer for Peter, in response to Ann's question as to why she and Peter can't be less predictable and more animal-like.

Anthony Fusco is just perfect. We like him, and now, thanks to Act One, we have more of a glimpse into why he is the way he is. If Albee is advising us to cut loose, or warning us of what might happen if we do, you will have to decide for yourself. But the show will keep you on the edge of your seat. You'll have to work it out later.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo" Four Stars with one bauble of despair. Robert Brill's scenery and Stephen Strawbridge's lighting support the terrific acting by all three principals. Albee's dialogue is masterful, but the bauble of despair perhaps lands in the lap of director Rebecca Bayla Taichman. Peter's glibness, upon confronting Jerry, should have contained some portion of fear. If he had been shown to be more concerned for his own safety, it would have made more sense. If Jerry really wanted the conclusion he forced, shouldn't he have had to work a little harder? We're just sayin'.

"Edward Albee's "At Home at the Zoo"
A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through July 5

1 comment:

HankyGirl said...

I appreciated the actors, and I appreciate what people say that Albee wanted to convey, but the play still leaves me cold. Definitely no hankies here, except maybe one politely wielded to screen a small yawn.