At Home at the Zoo Updates a Classic at Palm Beach Dramaworks

Fifty years ago, Zoo Story made playwright Edward Albee famous, but he forbids it from being shown again. Its brief, brutal, single act had struck him as incomplete. Now he's added another, and the two acts combined are called At Home at the Zoo, showing at Palm Beach Dramaworks.

The two-act piece is better, and that ought to be apparent to anyone unencumbered by nostalgia. The original act followed the meeting of two very different men in the middle of Central Park: Peter, a staid publisher of textbooks, and Jerry, a drifter who accosts him with words and forces him to converse. Their interactions are illuminating, then horrifying: Jerry's rage at the random inequities of life, liberty, and the whole torpid American colossus is so great that he cannot help but provoke a confrontation in which Jerry forces Peter to kill him. The play hints that he does this at least partially to free the publisher from his middle-class doldrums. The whole thing is lovely, profound, and almost embarrassingly derivative of a certain kind of Beat literature that, by 1959, was breeding among smart young things like Tribbles. A big part of the drifter's famous monologue, "The Story of Jerry and the Dog," reads and sounds like a bad Allen Ginsberg imitation: "God who is a colored queen who wears a kimono and plucks his eyebrows/Who is a woman who cries with determination behind her closed door."

Drifter Jerry  accosts him in a park.
Drifter Jerry accosts him in a park.
Wife Ann tries to reason with Peter at home.
Wife Ann tries to reason with Peter at home.

The new, first act is more subtle and in this production features Margery Lowe in her strongest and most understated performance in years. She is Ann, wife of Peter the publisher (played by Christopher Swann), and the play opens with her wandering into the couple's comfy living room where Peter is reading a manuscript. "We should talk," she says, in a way that suggests that "talking" is a pretty novel pastime in this household. Peter doesn't hear her. Ann waits for him to respond, and waits, and waits, and then walks back to the kitchen. A minute later, Peter says "What?" Then slowly, fumblingly at first, they communicate. Their interactions, as orchestrated by director Bill Hayes, have the half-scary, half-wonderful feel of blood returning to a limb that's been slept on all night. Ann and Peter know each other well but are rusty at knowing. They love each other but are rusty at love.

Ann and Peter communicate with the kind of lingual shorthand that develops between any couple that has been together for a long time, so none of this is out in the open. But the actors, and Lowe especially, are remarkably adept at transparently rendering the couple's nonverbal communication. These people are broadcasting on so many bandwidths that you could choke on all the love, dread, acceptance, fear, longing, regret, and forgiveness whizzing through the theater's air. Ann, it is revealed, is unsatisfied with her marriage to Peter; she wants something wilder, more passionate, more dangerous. Peter sputters a protest: "But — I thought we had an agreement! A smooth journey on a safe ship! I thought that's what we wanted." This sounds like a kind of suicide to me — where is that safe ship bound for, if not old age and death? It plainly sounds that way to Ann too. But what is written on Lowe's face as she hears these words is more than simple distress. There is also admiration for Peter's ability to stay his fool's course, vague dislike of herself for not being able to join him, amusement at Peter's fussy timidity, instant forgiveness of that timidity, and a despair that is all but covered up because, after all, what good could it do anyway? Only a real cataclysm could rock Peter's ship. Thus, Zoo Story's mortal confrontation in the park.

The original first act is immeasurably enriched by its new prologue — not least of all because Peter is rescued from the cipher-hood to which he was banished in the original one-act. The drifter, Jerry, is played here by Todd Allen Durkin, and he achieves what I thought impossible: making Jerry's secondhand beatnik ways look and sound authentic. If you've read or seen the play, you know that Jerry's a jerk. If we're to take him at his word, the only interesting people are strung-out desolation angels and rail-riding hobos, and nothing could be more banal than the law-abiding working stiff. Jerry flattens Peter, line by line, digging into his dignity and making him apologize for being normal. Durkin upends all of this. His Jerry is a self-loathing narcissist with psychiatric issues. His face twitches, his eyes roll, he is quick to anger and quick to forgive, and he's as far away from desolation-angel cool as you can get without a GOP membership card. He's no sage of the street: He's crazy. Durkin's interpretation is mercurial, petulant, and androgynous. Like Ann, who doesn't appear in act two, he just wants to talk. You want to let him.

I just wish he'd find a better conversation partner. Swann's Peter was a little stuffy in act one, but by act two, he's so geeked out that he barely seems to be paying attention to Durkin at all; he's too busy screwing his face and body into ever more extreme paroxysms of squareness. That's OK, though — you don't have to watch him. His weird convulsions on the park bench detract not at all from this production's, and this play's, accomplishment. Reimagining a classic is never easy, but At Home at the Zoo does more: It adds ambiguity to a work that, before, was all about absolutes, it turns ciphers to people, and it repositions its hero as a lost little boy who may not need a conversation so much as a spanking. Albee, in his old age, has become very wise.

 
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