April 7, 2011 at 4:58 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
At home with Albee

‘At Home at the Zoo’
Through April 24
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth Street, S.W.

James McMenamin (left) as Jerry and Jeff Allin as Peter in 'At Home at the Zoo,' an Edward Albee play being produced now at Arena Stage. (Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Arena)

For Peter, the mild-mannered New York textbook publisher sprung from the fertile mind of gay playwright Edward Albee, invitations to talk invariably spell trouble.

A mixture of old and new, Albee’s “At Home at the Zoo” is currently making its D.C.-area premiere at Arena Stage. The second act is the playwright’s 1959 career-making “The Zoo Story,” an intense one act in which Peter tragically accepts a gabby transient’s insistent offer to chat. And in the first act — a more recently written, calmer prequel titled “Home Life” (2004) — Peter reluctantly enters into a tough but revelatory conversation with wife Ann that he’d rather have avoided. Together, the players offer ample reason why typically reserved Peter is better off not talking.

Set in the affluent couple’s tasteful Manhattan apartment (subtly suggested by set designer James Noone), the action begins with Ann interrupting Peter who is immersed in a weighty, work-related tome.

“We should talk,” she suggests. After initial resistance, he follows her lead and a conversation unlike any they’ve ever had ensues. In no time, these comfortably married WASPs (believably played by Colleen Delany and Jeff Allin) with two daughters, two cats and two parakeets delve into a wide-ranging discussion that includes hacking off healthy breasts, circumcision (male and female), and anal sex (of the heterosexual variety). Before ending the exchange and returning to the quietly defined parameters of their everyday life, Ann gently informs Peter that despite his best efforts, he is unable to love and satisfy her in the ways that she needs.

After intermission, Peter escapes to his usual refuge — a welcoming bench in nearby Central Park where he predictably buries himself in yet another book. Soon after, he’s approached by Jerry, a hard-to-pigeonhole transient eager to talk, played by the excellent James McMenamin. For the most part, seated Peter serves as an audience to Jerry who paces back and forth, playfully deriding his new acquaintance’s safe, economically secure lifestyle. In fact, McMenamin mounts a bench to deliver his character’s famous story about the dog (a lengthy monologue describing Jerry’s prolonged contretemps with his repulsive boarding house manager’s foul canine). Things end badly between Peter and the increasingly menacing Jerry.

Full of animal imagery, the familiar second act violently explores feelings of alienation and loneliness. With its spare, witty dialogue, “Home Life” tackles the same themes but in a quieter, more domestic way. For “At Home at the Zoo,” Albee updates “The Zoo Story,” which doesn’t always work. For instance, today it’s not so likely that a professional type might take time to connect with a disheveled guy who appears to be off his meds. Complaints aside, both acts work well and certainly uphold Albee’s notion that the function of the arts is “to make us rethink that which we believe we believe.”

Staged by Mary B. Robinson, the production is part of Arena’s Edward Albee festival. Also included in the two-month long celebration is a fine production of the playwright’s boozy, battle-filled masterpiece “Who’s Afraid of Virginian Woolf?” (closes on April 10) as well as 26 staged readings of other Albee works.

“At Home at the Zoo” nicely encapsulates the 83-year-old playwright’s bravura skills — then and now — in two deliberately paced hours. Just prior to the show, a message recorded by Albee himself advises theatergoers to turn off their cell phones and refrain from texting during the performance, such a charming touch, particularly for an Albee festival. It’s not everyday a genius dramatist not only entertains you, but also dispenses a few theater etiquette tips.

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