They had an understanding, Ann and Peter. All these years, married and comfortable with kids and cats and parakeets, they had an unspoken deal.
“We should talk,” she says, coming barefoot into the living room, where he’s reading some leaden tome. Maybe the phrase doesn’t strike dread in his heart because he isn’t paying much attention. Anyway, her tone is neutral enough. What could there possibly be to fear?
Words, actually. Words that, once she’s uttered them, will roil the placid surface of their too-domesticated life, stirring up all the messy muck concealed underneath. And Peter doesn’t do messy. Peter doesn’t do out-of-control. Sitting in his armchair on a Sunday afternoon, his gingham shirt is neatly buttoned, his legs crossed in tan cotton pants.
But in Lila Neugebauer’s electrifying revival of Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story at Signature Theater Company, Peter is in for a powerful jolt. Two, in fact, because this is Albee’s stitched-together play: Its second half, The Zoo Story, is the piece that made Albee’s name, on a Provincetown Playhouse double bill with Samuel Beckett, in 1960. The first half, Homelife, is a prequel that had its premiere in 2004. Peter, played here by a brilliantly cast Robert Sean Leonard, is the mild, middle-aged link between them.
If you, like me, never thought Homelife worked before; if you, like me, suspected The Zoo Story was too much of a period piece to retain a powerfully visceral performative charge, well, you’re in for a jolt, too. Neugebauer — a protégée of James Houghton, Signature’s late founder, who was a champion of Albee even when that wasn’t fashionable — unlocks something essential in this production. Freeing the text from notions of how Albee should be staged, she does away with the chilly, cerebral distance that can feel so stilted; even the lighting, by Japhy Weideman, insists on greater warmth. Neugebauer lets the menace of the play arise from its animal wildness, the pleasure of it from its human comedy.
Neugebauer is in her element, and we are in Albee’s. We know it as soon as we glimpse Andrew Lieberman’s sleek modernist set, its walls and floor a mass of black-on-white abstract scribbles, as if Cy Twombly had taken up interior design. Up high, all is bright and clear; lower down, the lines become a dense, chaotic tangle. This is what Neugebauer so vibrantly excavates: The feral geography of human impulse and desire.
Keeping chaos at bay was what Ann and Peter both wanted, long ago, when they set out on their life together. So far it’s been, in his estimation, “a smooth voyage on a safe ship.”
“And isn’t it frightening,” she says — a statement, not a question.
“It is?” he asks.
Poor Peter, so tamed and civilized that even his imagination is under strict control. If he were a dog, he’d be a docile chocolate lab, content to sit by the hearth and gnaw on a favorite tennis ball. But Ann, in Katie Finneran’s sprightly, dark-edged, laceratingly funny performance, is like a bird in a cage, eager to make a break for freedom outside. Stifled by her threat-free existence, in their apartment on the Upper East Side, she yearns for something savage and uncontained. As she begins to lay this out to Peter, he’s startled by the coarseness of her language, and she reminds him that their children are nowhere near.
“Who’s to hear?” she asks.
“Me?” he says.
“Oh, yeah? Then listen.”
It’s a stranger named Jerry who demands Peter’s ear a while later, in The Zoo Story, after he takes his book and retreats alone to a bench in Central Park. “Do you mind if we talk?” Jerry says, and it’s not really a request. Scruffy, disruptive, in jeans and a too-large T-shirt (costumes are by Kaye Voyce), Jerry has the kind of high-intensity presence that refuses to be ignored. Sly and unbalanced in a gorgeously kinetic performance by Paul Sparks, Jerry is a smart man with a clouded mind. He’s aggressive, charismatic, and hilariously lethal with his put-downs — and, like Ann, has an avian air: ruffled feathers, cock of the walk.
Peter is too polite not to be the audience for Jerry, who talks less about his trip to the zoo than his recent vicious combat with his landlady’s snarling dog, a creature he famously describes as “malevolence with an erection.” Peter could hardly be more the inverse of that dog: so tamped-down sexually that (as he’s told Ann, to her helpless amusement) his “penis seems to be… retreating.” He is the one unflashy character in this muscular, fully flexed play, and Leonard imbues him with surprising glimmers of poignancy.
Albee, who died in 2016, told me in an interview shortly before Homelife premiered that fans of The Zoo Story had been asking him for decades what happened to Peter after his encounter with Jerry in the park. Albee refused to supply an answer. This thrilling, illuminating production has me wishing, for the first time, that he had.