Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: At Home at the Zoo is not about Occupy Wall Street. When the play began, way back in 1958, and when it was finished, almost a half-century later, the Occupy movement didn’t exist.
Yet beneath its considerable entertainment value Edward Albee’s old-new play feels as current as a bullhorn-blaring encampment on a littered patch of downtown mud. It might almost have been called Occupy Central Park. Or maybe Occupy America’s Soul. In raw terms, the story comes down to this: Poor guy confronts rich guy in a park. Only one of them survives, and to say he “won” requires an extremely elastic, even willfully oblivious, understanding of the word.
From its outset the Occupy movement has been intensely and intentionally, if not always shrewdly, theatrical, and the situational roots of its theatrics are all over the stage in Profile Theatre’s new production of At Home at the Zoo. Albee’s comic drama is an expansion and reworking of his first produced play, The Zoo Story, which established his reputation as an up-and-comer before his hail-genius-well-met success in 1962 with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
In the process of rethinking The Zoo Story Albee anticipated the origins of Occupy and took it a step beyond. Sure, the movement’s about greed and hoarding and the abandonment of the middle and working classes and the fully down and out. But the country’s complex and sometimes angry reactions to it are also about caution and safety – about clinging to what we have, hoping to ride things out, for fear of what unleashing unpredictable forces might let loose. Better the devil we know inside ourselves than the one we might discover if things bust loose.
The tale of The Zoo Story is almost tribal in its stripped-down tempting of the fates. Peter, a comfortable sort of upper-middle-class Upper West Sider, is reading a book on his favorite Central Park bench when he’s interrupted by Jerry, an erratic, down-at-the-heels, story-spinning young man of suspect hygiene and apparel who demands Peter’s attention. What begins as an uncomfortable moment slips into an uneasy truce before exploding into a shocking violence which is nevertheless also an almost loving complicity. The one-act is short, compact, quizzical in that early-Pinter Birthday Party kind of way: an intense white heat, satisfying partly because its nerve endings are left jangling and unexplained.
Hardly a month goes by when The Zoo Story isn’t in production on some stage somewhere around the world. Yet as successful as it’s been, something about it kept eating at Albee. It bugged him that, while Jerry dominates the energy and action, Peter remained largely a question mark. Who was he? What did he think? Why didn’t he just get up from the bench and walk away?
There was another, fuller story, Albee felt, and so he turned his one-act into a full two-act play – or rather, a pair of linked one-acts, adding Homelife at the beginning and doing some minor tinkering with Zoo Story to create At Home at the Zoo. The fresh version debuted in 2004 at Hartford Stage under the title Peter and Jerry and then opened off-Broadway in 2007, under its new title, at Second Stage.
Profile’s swift and often funny production, under the direction of that smart and efficient master mechanic Pat Patton, digs into both the old and new with satisfying gusto. Peter (Don Alder), the mild-mannered man on the park bench, becomes the link between Act 1, which takes place between Peter and his comfortable but not entirely satisfied wife Ann (Karla Mason), and, in Act 2, the aggressive and possibly loony Jerry (James Sharinghousen).
Both acts are fascinating and alternately funny and horrifying, and now that they’re together the tale almost screams for a concluding Act 3. There are gains – a deeper understanding of both Peter and the forces of violence that coalesced on the park bench; the wonderful character of Ann, who prods Peter in ways less confrontational but no less radically challenging than Jerry. And there are losses – primarily in the savage mysteriousness of the 1958 original, which seemed to rise from the muck like an unexplainable holy fragment of pure existence. (The Zoo Story has the rush of early Sam Shepard.) Lovers of mystery, the existentialists in the audience, may well prefer the original. Classicists, those who thrive on exploration and explanation, will be glad for the expansion. I’m happy that both versions now exist.
“Almost before I knew it, Homelife fell from my mind to the page … intact,” Albee wrote upon the New York debut of the expanded version. “There was the Peter I had always known – a full three-dimensional person and – wow! Here was Ann, his wife, whom I must have imagined deep down, 40-some years ago, but hadn’t brought to consciousness.”
At Profile, the byplay between Alder and Mason in Homelife is quite delicious. Mason is forthright and sophisticated, funny and affectionate, and surprisingly practical in revealing something that Ann’s husband doesn’t want to hear at all – that something’s missing, something necessarily beastly and savage, and it leaves her feeling that life is slipping by while she and Peter remain on the sidelines. Like Bill Pullman, who starred as Peter in New York, Alder has the gift of presenting a calmly controlled surface that gives way to little gusts of humor and small hints of disturbances roiling beneath.
Peter is a man whose strength is his ability to suppress his wilder instincts, to provide a rich and trouble-free and above all smooth life of civilized comfort and measured pleasure. He cut loose once, in the past, and it frightened him deeply. He’s determined not to let it happen again: Too much feeling disturbs the universe. Peter publishes boring but important textbooks, and his job has provided for him well: his salary is very good, and no doubt he’s invested prudently. He’s a man of gradual advances, not revolutions. He believes in order and progress, the rising tide that lifts all boats. When he discovers that this isn’t enough for Ann, it shakes him to his well-protected core. Is he, might he be, an empty man?
Then, in the park, there Jerry is: the savage, the avatar of impulse, Peter’s opposite and enemy, who might also be his undiscovered half or the son he doesn’t have. There’s always been something a little cartoonish about Jerry, who is both victim and victimizer, occupier and occupied. Sharinghousen roars and growls and leaps like a playful bear. But bears can bite.
In his versions of these paired plays Albee brings scope, intelligence, sadness and extraordinary wit to an often inchoate set of ideas that have been rumbling around America since its inception – ideas of equity and opportunity, sharing and hoarding, having and having not, communalism and independence, staying safe and hanging over the edge. This is the ether that the Occupy movement breathes. Albee, writing before the movement began, suggests that such matters are more than simply economic, and that in matters of emotion and belief and even action, the ratio isn’t only 99 to 1. It’s also 20 to 80, and 92 to 8, and 50 to 50, and 37 to 63, and 33 to 33 to 34, and one to one, and at some core level we’re all responsible, all in it together.
Share the park bench, anyone?
Profile Theatre’s At Home at the Zoo continues through January 29 at the Theater! Theatre! Building, 3430 S.E. Belmont St., Portland. Ticket info here.