At Home at the Zoo Victory Gardens Theater
In early productions, including its 1968 Broadway debut, Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story was paired with an absurdist classic, Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett. Maybe that’s what started people thinking that Albee’s one-act, and even Albee himself, might be absurdist too. But on the evidence of “At Home at the Zoo”—a pairing of The Zoo Story with Albee’s own, much more recent Homelife, running now at Victory Gardens Theater under Dennis Zacek’s direction—that’s just not the case. The Zoo Story isn’t so much absurd as silly. An extremely accomplished sort of silly.
Absurdism asserts the pointlessness of existence—we want the world to mean something but it doesn’t—and The Zoo Story certainly gets bleak. A poor slob named Jerry shows up at a Manhattan park bench occupied by Peter, a prim middle-aged man with a pipe, a wife, kids, a good address, some pets, and what he calls an “executive position” at a small publishing firm that specializes in textbooks. “I’ve been to the zoo,” Jerry tells him by way of greeting, and though Peter ignores Jerry at first, we’re off. What follows is basically Jerry’s motormouthed valedictory address to the world, which for some reason—or maybe none—means Peter.
Refusing to accept Peter’s polite vagueness for rejection, Jerry talks long, hard, and with a savage wit about his isolation in the world, his seedy Uptown digs where sleeping rooms are divided by beaverboard walls, and, particularly, the alcoholic landlady who casts a lustful if confused eye on him every so often. As it happens, the landlady owns a big, sloppy dog who’s out to get Jerry; the centerpiece of The Zoo Story, Jerry’s recounting of his various attempts to neutralize the beast, turns into a dark, dark disquisition on love.
Jerry is in despair, all right. He’s lost his faith. But that in itself doesn’t make his existence pointless. For his existence to be pointless, at least in the universe of this play, Peter would have to validate Jerry’s despair—to act in a way that would crack his remote, tweedy veneer and corroborate Jerry’s sense of the essential futility of things. The twentysomething Albee who wrote The Zoo Story grasped this fact, and set about contriving a climax that would do the job. Trouble is, the climax he came up with is exactly that: a contrivance. Tom Amandes is one hell of an actor. It’s a privilege to watch him work Peter’s angles. But I didn’t for a minute believe the things he has to do in the play’s final minutes.
Homelife, Albee’s 2001 prequel to The Zoo Story (he now considers them an inseparable combo, hence the comprehensive title) doesn’t help at all. Set in Peter’s taseful apartment, it consists entirely of a conversation between the executive and his wife, Ann, played here by another formidable Chicago-based actor, Annabel Armour. The piece is a kind of structural and thematic ghost image of The Zoo Story, hitting all the same notes in a softer-edged way. In that sense it’s redundant. But it also serves to humanize Peter—which only makes his subsequent interaction with Jerry less believable than it already was. Worse still, the dialogue between Peter and Ann feels as if it’s all in Albee’s voice. The disconcerting result: a husband and wife in their 40s talking to each other as if they were a single old man.
There’s still an excellent reason to see this show, and that’s Jerry. Albee’s speeches for him are still stingingly, hilariously brilliant, and Marc Grapey carries them off with a combination of rage, suffering, and poise that made me think—oddly, I admit—of what Jackie Gleason might’ve been like had he ever landed a role in Waiting for Godot.