“At Home at the Zoo” – Edward Albee at the Arena (18 cents)

I am looking forward to seeing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” this weekend at the Arena. It’s the Steppenwolf production from Chicago, which got rave reviews, including one by Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal. He particularly praised playwright/actor Tracy Letts (he plays Richard Burton).

As part of a promotion, Arena offered half price tickets to another Albee play if you had full price tickets to Virginia Wolf. That explains why, last week, we saw the unusual double play Albee titled “At Home at the Zoo”. Unusual because this two act play consists of the combination of two one act plays, one first performed in 1959 (“Zoo Story”) and one which premiered in 2003 (then called “Homelife”). “Homelife” was written under commission from the Hartford Stage to be a prequel to “Zoo Story”. Then, the two one acts were performed together and eventually renamed.

You may remember “Zoo Story”. One act, two actors, a park bench in a secluded grove in Central Park, just off Fifth Avenue. Peter, middle-class, conservative, and a bit awkward, is reading a book. Jerry, younger, disheveled, a street person, strikes up a conversation with Peter who, though reticent, does respond to Jerry and answer his increasingly personal questions. Then, tired of asking, Jerry answers the questions that Peter never asked. “Why are you telling me this”, says Peter, as Jerry spins a strange tale of his relationship with his landlord’s dog.

Things go from bad to worse – for the denouement, see the play. “Zoo Story” is an engaging play, not because of its plot, in my opinion, but because of the quality of the writing and the otherworldly feel of it all.

I don’t think that the addition of the new first act – which sort of tells you why Peter is sitting in the park on a Sunday afternoon, reading a book, improves on “Zoo Story”. To the contrary.

The first act also features two actors, this time Peter and his wife Anne, in their apartment on East 74th Street. You learn that Peter is a text book publisher, that it is his particular job to read through books pre-publication, and make sure that there is nothing in them that would embarrass anyone. It is, by all accounts and especially by Peter’s, a very boring job, but it’s a job, and Peter is not looking for excitement. Anne on the other hand, presumably happily married to Peter for years (they have two children), is subconsciously quite unhappy and frustrated apparently, and when Peter doesn’t hear her because he is focusing on reading the newest text book, and she decides she really wants to talk, the frustrations pour out, and they are all about the unexciting sex life of their marriage, and her desire to have things spiced up a bit. The conversation is somewhat awkward, Peter either being afraid to discuss the subject, or perhaps he simply does not want to, but, again subconsciously, he might be feeling the same way, only his subconsciousness lies even further below the surface than Anne’s does.

At the end of their conversation, which is at least R,perhaps MA or X rated (unnecessarily so, I thought), he decides to go to the park and read a book.

The conversation between Peter and Anne is very one dimensional, and quite silly, the tone of the act is very different from the tone of his meeting with Jerry in the park, and the mystery of who Peter is (a part of “Zoo Story”, where I had always thought that Peter was sort of a 1950s everyman, not a particular individual) has been solved.

Or has it? Peter and Anne clearly do not have this conversation every day, or every week. But Peter, presumably when the weather cooperates, reads a book in the park on the same bench every Sunday. There is therefore no connection between his frustrating and embarrassing sex conversation with his wife, and his decision to go to the park.

So what is the connection between the two acts? I am not sure.

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