Thursday, May 7, 2009

Theater review: Albee's 'At Home at the Zoo' half of a great evening

Todd Allen Durkin, left, and Christopher Swan
in At Home at the Zoo.

By Hap Erstein

Three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Albee is nothing if not meticulous, in his writing, his word choice and his self-criticism.

And for most of the past 50 years, he has felt that his 1958 one-act play The Zoo Story, the bold Central Park confrontation that first brought him recognition, was imperfect and incomplete.

As you recall, if you saw the work performed at Palm Beach Dramaworks six years ago or elsewhere, it concerns a coincidental meeting between soft-spoken publishing executive Peter and gregarious though unstable Jerry, a self-described “permanent transient,” that ends in violence.

Jerry bullies his way into Peter’s seemingly placid afternoon and he similarly takes over the play. Although Albee now argues that what the play lacks is more background on Peter, the way that Todd Allen Durkin’s Jerry charismatically monopolizes the new production currently at Dramaworks, you are likely to have little interest in Peter anyway.

Still, in 2003, Albee attached to The Zoo Story a first act, a conversation between Peter and his wife Ann in their Upper East Side New York apartment. Together, the two acts have been dubbed At Home at the Zoo and Dramaworks -- loyal, perhaps to a fault, to Albee -- is giving it its Florida premiere, following in the footsteps of the late Paul Harvey and offering us “the rest of the story.”

Well, the company proves again -- not that it was ever in doubt -- that The Zoo Story is a remarkable, concise, powerful piece of writing with a role that a resourceful actor such as Durkin can have a proverbial field day with. As to the new first half, to quote Gertrude Stein on the subject of Oakland, there is not much there there.

In it, Ann (an unsympathetic Margery Lowe) comes into the living room where Peter is engrossed in one of his firm’s textbook manuscripts, and announces that the two of them should talk. So they verbally circle around each other speaking of the etymology of clichéd phrases, self-inflicted breast mutilation, deep sleep paralysis and undefined fears, before Ann gets to the point, declaring a dissatisfaction with their sex life.

It seems that over the years, their lovemaking has become passionless and predictable, where Ann would occasionally prefer something rougher. Peter, although clearly uncomfortable with the whole subject, launches into a recollection of a college frat initiation orgy that has made him wary of anything approaching violent sex ever since.

Christopher Swan delivers the brutal monologue well enough, but those who know what is ahead in the second act and long wondered why Peter stays around when Jerry arrives on the scene, the Peter-Ann exchange is of little help.

Nevertheless, after intermission, Michael Amico’s tastefully understated apartment set is whisked away, replaced by a simple couple of park benches, nicely dappled by Ginny Adams’ lighting. Soon Durkin’s Jerry enters, desperate to make human contact with Peter, to talk of his attempt to kill his landlady’s mangy dog and then to reveal his true agenda.

Jerry initially seems like some minor annoyance, the sort that sits next to you on a plane flight when you’ve got a good book. But as he continues his invasive questioning of Peter, crowding his space, growing more erratically animated with his story, we do sense how mesmerizing Durkin is and how unstable Jerry is.

Director William Hayes -- who played Jerry in that earlier Dramaworks production -- might as well get some credit for helping to shape Durkin’s performance, but he is unable to breathe life into the first act or to make it seem less arch.

On an academic level, it is interesting to see two pieces by Albee, written about half a century apart, played out side by side. On a visceral level, the second act all but obliterates any memory of the first.

If you are going to At Home at the Zoo, you will not miss much if you arrive at intermission, about 9:10 p.m. Maybe you could even negotiate a half-price ticket.

AT HOME AT THE ZOO, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach. Continuing through June 14. Tickets: $40-$42. Call: (561) 514-4042.

1 comment:

John Thomason said...

Great review, Hap. I couldn't agree with you more. The first act is excruciating, the second invigorating.