The Zoo Story, Edward Albee’s landmark 1958 debut, has always been a play about the desperate quest for human connection in a world that the playwright suggests forces loneliness upon individual subjects. The 2004 addition of a prequel, Homelife, redoubled Albee’s examination of this theme by opening new avenues into a central character’s domesticity and personal history. Together, the two one-act plays now comprise At Home at the Zoo, a full length play enjoying a lushly poetic staging under the direction of Lila Neugebauer at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Together with her talented cast, Albee’s crisp-as-ever writing, and an estimable contribution from scenic designer Andrew Lieberman, Neugebauer has crafted a production full of meticulously muted human longing.
The play’s more familiar second act finds Peter (Robert Sean Leonard) quietly reading on a bench before he is interrupted by Jerry (Paul Sparks), a mysterious and loquacious loner determined to engage Peter in conversation. Jerry dominates the discussion that ranges from mundane observations about the weather to deep philosophical introspection before mounting to tense conflict.
Albee’s prequel, now act one, examines Peter in his home, introducing us to his wife, Ann (Katie Finneran), talkative and reflective as her husband reads quietly in his chair. Like Jerry, Ann wonders aloud about the possibilities and limitations of interpersonal connection as Peter, caught unaware, acts as mostly a sounding board despite Ann’s pleas for something more visceral.
Although he has the least lines by a significant margin, Leonard expertly fulfills his great responsibility for a complex, pitiable Peter. Leonard shows us that Peter may be quiet, even reticent, but is never disengaged. Leonard’s Peter is an active, thoughtful listener. Whether or not that investment yields understanding of Ann’s or Jerry’s message is a question that Albee, Leonard, and Neugebauer leave open.
The great success of both Finneran and Sparks is showing us how Ann and Jerry are on exploratory journeys as they speak to Peter. Both have something very important that they want to convey, but neither knows precisely what that is or how to say it. Ultimately, this production shows how At Home at the Zoo is about the space between that desire and execution: Ann and Jerry want nothing more than to lay themselves bare before Peter, but both struggle to achieve a connection. Finneran’s Ann is a loving, nurturing wife and mother, while Sparks’s Jerry is a lifetime loner, but both use their conversations with Peter to try to access something deeper and more complex about themselves. Leonard’s Peter listens intently, but struggles to be the audience Ann and Jerry need.
Lieberman’s stark scenery captures on a grand scale the static and confusion at the core of all three of these characters and the desperation underlying both conversations. These humans seem frequently minuscule against Lieberman’s imposing backdrop, a fitting picture for Albee’s terminally lonely characters.