At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story

Theater, Drama
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Helen Shaw

There’s no way to say this gently. The play At Home at the Zoo is a single drama Frankenstein-ed together out of two one-acts: Edward Albee’s 1959 masterpiece, The Zoo Story, is bolted onto its far inferior prequel, Homelife, which premiered in 2004. And while you are still allowed to perform The Zoo Story on its own, the Signature Theater, which puts playwrights at the center of its mission, follows Albee’s wish that the two be played as a single piece. That’s laudable, honorable even, but it makes for an evening that’s fully half bad. Yet there’s good news: Thanks to the diamondlike brilliance of Paul Sparks in Zoo, the show is unmissable. (Out of respect for his costar Robert Sean Leonard, I’m not telling you to just show up at intermission.)

Homelife could almost be a spoof on an Albee play. While reading a book, wealthy husband Peter (a beautifully precise Leonard) is interrupted by his dissatisfied wife, Ann (Katie Finneran). She wanted to say something; she can’t remember; oh, right, she has a yawning sense of ennui that’s due to her husband’s lack of “animal” vigor during sex. Finneran ladles charm on the part, but she can’t hide that it’s a paper-thin construction. Albee admitted in interviews that Homelife exists only to fill in “gaps” in Peter’s character in Zoo, and everything about Ann—her flimsiness, her idiot need for “chaos” in a house with two teenage girls, even the white linen dress designer Kaye Voyce puts her in—points to that purpose-built blankness. She’s a margin where Albee could scrawl notes about Peter.

We sink with palpable relief into The Zoo Story. Peter sits on a bench in Central Park, still clutching a book, when the garrulous, slightly scruffy Jerry (Sparks) ambles up and starts to talk. Jerry is antic and possibly mad, but at least he’s trying to make contact with another human being. Albee’s one-act has been interpreted as a slice-of–New York tale, a Biblical parable (with Jerry as Jesus), a story of closeted longing (why does Peter sit on that secluded bench every Sunday?) and as the battering ram that crashed the Off Broadway experiment back into the literary vanguard. It contains all that and more; it’s the kind of play that opens wider every time you see it.

In the Signature production, it’s a duet, beautifully orchestrated by director Lila Neugebauer. Leonard finds a world of grace notes to play, but the melody line belongs to Sparks, who prowls like a Muppet tiger around Andrew Lieberman’s clever set (an arc of park benches in a white, scribbled-on void). He twines his legs around each other; his hair does a kind of energized bounce; he goofs and drawls and slinks and pounces. The night I saw it, he so hypnotized poor Leonard that the latter actor sometimes broke into laughter. “I’m Jerry,” Leonard said, getting his own character wrong. “No, I’m Jerry,” Sparks said with infinite patience and love. It was the sort of charmed and perfect mistake that I’ll be talking about as long as I talk about the play. You should go and see what wonderful thing happens on your night—something surely will. Everyone deserves her own story about what happened at the Zoo.

Pershing Square Signature Center (Off Broadway). By Edward Albee. Directed by Lila Neugebauer. With Robert Sean Leonard, Paul Sparks, Katie Finneran. Running time: 2hrs 10mins. One intermission.

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By: Helen Shaw

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