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Explain Peter? Albee Damned.

July 3, 2009

Edward Albee's At Home At the Zoo consists of two one-act plays. The first, "Homelife", was written in 2004 when Albee was 76 years old. The second, "Zoo Story", was composed when the author was just 30. Though the two plays complement each other in some ways, I'm not sure they should be produced together. More to the point, I'm not sure if "Homelife" should be produced at all.

San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater does as fine a job with staging both plays as is conceivable. (In fact, the two Albee plays I've experienced at ACT have been among the best work that I've seen the company produce in recent years. 2005's The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? was terrific.) Director Rebecca Bayla Taichman creates boldly contrasting moods between the two halves of the show. While almost everything about "Homelife" is careful, measured and internalized -- like Robert Brill's blandly stylish off-white living room set -- "Zoo Story", staged against a toxic green backdrop, bristles with animal energy, heart-on-sleeve passion and danger.

But while "Zoo Story" had me completely engrossed, "Home Life" almost made me go to sleep. I don't think that the problem lies with Taichman's production or the quality of Rene Augesen and Anthony Fusco's acting. The play feels completely staid and stale and I'm not sure if there's enough in it of interest to resonate in any particularly revealing way with the action in "Zoo Story."

Albee wrote "Homelife" to "do justice" to the character of Peter. The only character who appears in both plays, Peter is a dead-from-the-neck-down, middle-aged man who sits on a park bench minding his own business until his life is suddenly thrown off-kilter by a talkative and strange young man by the name of Jerry (compellingly played in ACT's production by a shifty yet lovable Manoel Felciano). Jerry does most of the talking in "Zoo Story" and Peter remains a shadowy, passive character. Albee attempts to readdress the balance between the two characters by helping us to understand Peter's behavior in "Zoo Story" through showing us the character at home with his wife Ann in "Homelife, which takes place in real-time about an hour before he heads to the park for his fateful meeting with Jerry.

While meeting Peter before he meets Jerry helps us to understand and empathize with the character to a degree, "Homelife", to my mind, has two enormous flaws. For one thing, unlike the apocalyptic "Zoo Story", "Homelife" could never work as a standalone play. It's just too plodding and cliche-ridden. For another, one of the wonderful things about "Zoo Story" is its strangeness. I like the mystery that enshrouds both Peter and Jerry. Why do we need to have Peter's life explained away?

At Home at the Zoo plays at ACT until July 5.

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