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At Home at the Zoo

Palindrome makes Albee's old/new play remarkable, insightful, and unsettling

Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., Nov. 12, 2010

Arts Review

At Home at the Zoo

The Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo, 939-6829, www.palindrometheatre.com

Through Nov. 21

Running time: 1 hr., 50 min.

Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo is a curious creation. The Zoo Story was Albee's first play of note, written in 1958. Nearly 50 years later, Albee wrote a prequel of sorts, a new first act that he tacked onto the beginning. Now professional theatre companies are required to perform both acts together as At Home at the Zoo if they want to perform any of it.

This massive edit to the original play is not unlike watching the new director's cut of one of your favorite films, seeing familiar scenes presented with new contexts and different angles. Partly, it's a fascinating exploration of fresh ideas. But then part of you also wishes the original had simply been left alone. Under Austin Sheffield's direction, Palindrome Theatre has presented a masterful rendition of Albee's new version of the play, one that illustrates the full range of new ideas and issues that the new material introduces to the classic script.

The second act of At Home at the Zoo (the one that was written first) features Peter (Jude Hickey) and Jerry (Nigel O'Hearn). Peter is an educated, upper-middle-class man with a wife and two kids. He's enjoying himself with a book on a park bench on a Sunday afternoon. Jerry is one of those types who never managed to organize the chaos of his own mind in a way that would let him function in society – which is to say, hold down a job, get married, and live a reasonably normal life. Except, the rawness of Jerry's very presence makes us question: Well, why exactly? Why go for the things that are assumed to be worthwhile? Which one of these men has failed to grasp the nature of his identity?

With the first act, Albee has introduced a female character, Ann (Robin Grace Thompson), Peter's wife. This new act is a painful demonstration of two people who doubtless love each other but have arrived in that place in their marriage in which nothing they say or do will ever make things right. At home, before going to the park, Peter attempts to get some work done, when Ann announces that they "need to talk." But once she has the mic, Ann can't muster the nerve to put words together expressing the void that wakes her up every morning before dawn, that has left her fundamentally dissatisfied. Peter tries to do the right thing, of course, but in the parlance of self-help literature, he does not make himself available.

Taken together, the two halves of the play have become very much a story about Peter and his strangled masculine identity. His polite, repressed, urbane manner gains new layers now that we know from where it comes. It's also painful to watch. Remarkable, well-produced, and insightful, yes. But let's also be honest here: This is one of those plays that is supposed to make you uncomfortable. On the intellectually engrossing scale, I give it a 10 of 10. On the heartwarming-tale-of-wholesome-fun scale? Not so much.

Again, Palindrome's work on this play is fabulous. The set (designed by George Marsolek) smartly unifies the two halves of the play; the three actors give wonderful performances. The satisfaction in watching At Home at the Zoo comes from the understandings gained from a difficult story.

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