Homelife finalizes The Zoo Story to create At Home at the Zoo.
How do you improve on a great one-act play? Add another act. At least that’s what Edward Albee has done in his devastating play At Home at the Zoo, which is receiving a powerhouse production from the Philadelphia Theatre Company.
To appreciate Home you need to know a little of its history. In 1958, a then-unknown Albee penned the one-act play The Zoo Story. A stunning 45-minute work about two men in a park, Story established Albee as one of the most exciting playwrights working at the time.
Over the years Albee’s reputation grew as he captured three Pulitzers and two Tony Awards. The Zoo Story likewise grew in stature and is now considered one of the finest one-acts in American theater.
Yet Albee never considered the play a balanced work. In a recent interview with PW he referred to Story as a “one and a half character play, with Jerry fully developed and Peter just a backboard for Jerry’s ideas.”
To address the discrepancy, Albee penned Homelife in 2004. A prequel to The Zoo Story, it focuses on an interaction Peter and his wife Ann have immediately before Peter embarks on his fateful outing to the park.
The pairing of Homelife and The Zoo Story yields fascinating results. Instead of separate one-act plays, At Home at the Zoo emerges as an edgy and sometimes shocking full-length work.
In Homelife, Peter (T. Scott Cunningham) is an editor who specializes in “boring books” and his marriage is equally uneventful. The tranquility of his domestic life suits Peter but Ann (Susan McKey) wants something more, especially in the bedroom, where she yearns for lovemaking that’s less polite and more primal.
Their conversation is filled with allusions to bodily mutilation, and though it’s an honest discussion, their differences remain unresolved. Ann wants disorder and chaos. Peter favors organization and calm.
“It’s not a bad life we’ve made together,” Peter observes, and this vaguely positive assessment of their marriage lingers as he makes his way to the park.
The second act opens with Peter happily reading on his favorite park bench. His afternoon of quiet solitude is disrupted by the appearance of Jerry (Andrew Polk).
Jerry is everything Peter is not. He lives alone in a small boarding house and, unlike Peter, has few possessions. He doesn’t even have anyone’s photo to fill his empty picture frame.
Darkly funny, unpredictable and disquieting, Jerry is a mesmerizing presence. And with Homelife not only is Peter a full partner in their exchanges, but we notice how closely Jerry resembles Ann, displaying the same yearning for a deep, primal connection with someone or something.
“We neither love nor hurt because we never attempt to reach each other,” Jerry says, and his remark addresses how desire for security leaves us safe but isolated.
Marvelously directed and performed, PTC’s production proves that at 81 years old Albee retains his ability to thrill us in a way few American playwrights can.
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