Berkshire Theatre Group’s production of EDWARD ALBEE’S AT HOME AT THE ZOO (ZOO STORY) is one of those rare occasions where the production not only is accurate to but also enhances the playwright’s text. Sounds like an obvious goal of a director, but it’s a notion curiously out-of-fashion these days with so many van Hove wannabees hell-bent on self-indulgent, director-driven, re-conceptions of venerable, well-known texts. Observing, or honoring, the playwright’s work sounds simple, too, but, it’s not, especially with a playwright like Edward Albee. In the interest of transparency, I acknowledge that I‘ve worked at Berkshire Theatre Group with both director Eric Hill (on THE HOMECOMING two seasons ago), and the cast members. What’s presented, on the Unicorn stage, in its productions of AT HOME AT THE ZOO, under Hill’s (appropriately) invisible hand, is Albee’s power, complexity and probity not just intact, but also invigorated. Paired here, as Albee intended, HOMELIFE and ZOO STORY emerge as a seamless, unified drama, with impeccably cadenced performances by David Adkins, Tara Franklin and Joey Collins.
ZOO STORY, the second act, was Albee’s first play, written in 1958. It’s about a lot of things but the action is a conversation between two strangers, Peter (played by David Adkins), a successful, middle-aged, text-book publishing executive, and Jerry (Joey Collins) , a forlorn and lonely stranger , in Central Park. Albee wrote the first act, HOMELIFE, a “prequel” in 2004. It, too, is about a lot of things but the action is a conversation between Peter and his wife Ann, in their Upper East apartment that takes place before his visit in the park. When first produced in Berlin in 1961, then New York in 1963, ZOO STORY was shocking, daring, bold, edgy - experimental even. It’s still all that, except experimental: it paved the way for so much theater that followed it. The story of HOMELIFE is ostensibly conventional: much of the conversation centers on Peter and Ann’s marriage, though like the rest of Albee’s work (especially THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA?) there’s nothing conventional about topics Albee brings up. The themes that Albee links between the two plays converge, with the acute sensitivity of this production, as a continuum, although paradoxically as David Adkins has observed , Albee could not have written ZOO STORY, with its daring, raw energy, as an older person, nor could he have written, with its contemplative matured view, HOMELIFE as l’enfant terrible.
Territory - and the natural instinct to defend it – spatially defines action in both plays, even if that territory for Peter in their affluent Manhattan apartment is as comfortable and mundane as a modern armchair, and for Ann its matching sofa. The first line, Ann’s “We should talk”, establishes a necessity to communicate. As Peter and Ann’s conversation evolves (evolution indeed), Albee’s setting up the question about the utility of superimposing thought over feeling, almost as a proscription of primitive nature. Albee’s doing far more than testing the limits of marriage or, even spousal communication . What’s love got to do with it? Peter worries about his penis: Ann
about her breasts. Peter confesses a college incident that involves bloody physical injury. Talk turns to pets, a pair of cats and a pair of parakeets, innocent enough but animals all the same.
From the get-go, Adkins and Franklin establish the rhythms in Albee’s language, almost metronomically, incorporating Pinter-light pauses, all synchronized with movement as they stalk around the living room set. (Who’s hunting whom?) Franklin’s best moments are the most challenging when she maintains the beat while negotiating some radical emotional shifts. Adkins, in a remarkable performance that is both controlled and vulnerable (like Peter), quickly establishes Peter as a civilized man of intellect and privilege surviving very comfortably, if not altogether peaceably, in a civilized world.
The precepts about his world that Peter assumes and the territory he claims - a parkbench in Act 2 - gets challenged beginning with the benign, tentative approach of Jerry, a forlorn and lonely stranger, who lives in a boarding house on the West Side, who’s just visited the Park’s zoo. The act starts off with Jerry, played with foreboding enigma by Joey Collins, a safe distance from the bench, but eventually he paces around the bench, hovering over Peter. (Who’s hunting whom, again). In an amazing, nearly 20-minute monologue - which continues precisely the rhythms of language established by Adkins and Franklin in Act 1 - Collins completes a portrait of an intelligent, injured soul alienated from the world. Jerry, like Ann, needs to communicate, to tell his “zoo story”, his visit to see animals (animals, again) but meanders, obsessing about his landlady’s dog (an animal, again). Does Jerry’s need to communicate conform to Peter’s capacity to understand, or vice versa?
Jerry divulges unsettling aspects of his own life: his curiosity about Peter’s is intrusive, then threatening. Disturbance mounts. When Peter and Jerry really contact, do instincts prevail? How does Peter engage with Jerry, or does he disengage (fight or flight indeed). What’s thought got to do with it?
What’s most engaging about Albee is just when one thinks one might (emphasis on might) have figured him out, he reveals more. In these two plays, both action and theme in HOMELIFE come around in ZOO STORY to an unforgettable, shocking climax that lands with a punch to the gut. AT HOME AT THE ZOO at Berkshire Theatre Group combines text, direction and acting that make real theatre real, the kind of dramatic wholeness people in theatre aspire too but seldom achieve as well as here.
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