By Patrick Hurley
Deaf West Theatre is presenting Edward Albee’s at Home at the Zoo at the Wallis Annenberg, now through March 26, and the amalgamation of Deaf West’s duality in casting combined with Albee’s masterful focus on language creates a disparity with more returns than diminishes. The play, which consists of two of Albee’s short plays, The Zoo Story, written in 1958, and Homelife, it’s prequel, written in 2004, deals with themes of isolation, dissatisfaction, and the essential loneliness of being human, a bittersweet and ultimately tragic journey, as seen through the eyes of an everyman who is being confronted by an unsatisfied wife and a volatile stranger, both of whom challenge his routine, thwart his sense of stasis, and alter his entire universe through Albee’s bleak, often hilarious, but always effective language.
The first half, Homelife, we are invited into the seemingly contented household of Peter (Troy Kotsur, voiced by Jake Eberle) and Ann (Amber Zion, voiced by Paige Lindsey White). Ann enters the living room, needing to talk to her husband. After more than one diversion in subject, Peter and Ann do talk. And what is revealed is the miscommunication of relationships, the ultimately disappointing reality that no matter how fulfilled we may seem, there is longing for something beyond our experience, something that acts as the enemy of complacency: Desire. There is a lifetime of experience coming from the voice of the author, and the violence bubbling underneath the surface creates beautiful tension in the contradiction of a not-too unhappy couple. This is no Virginia Woolf, it’s more grounded in the illusion versus reality theme, it’s a theme that propels the play to move to the second act, and Peter’s need for stasis being upended is even more effective.
The second act, The Zoo Story, finds Peter in the park trying to read when he encounters Jerry (Russell Harvard, voiced by Jeff Alan-Lee). So desperate for connection is Jerry, that he spends the majority of the play telling Peter stories about his ineffective means of connecting with anyone or anything, including a dog he tried to kill. It soon becomes clear that this is an allegory, fueled by symbolism with a peripeteia that is as surprising as it is inevitable. As both the audience and Peter listen to Jerry, it becomes clear that he is alone in the world, there is a bit of absurdism happening in this play, as we look into the utter bleakness of a character like Jerry and his loneliness. What good is there in a world where a man cannot make a single connection to another living being? The isolation factor moves this play into the allegorical, and the ending might just be a symbolic connection and destruction of a piece of Peter. We all have a little bit of Jerry in us, and like him, we all wander through life looking for connection.
Director Coy Middlebrook has some big challenges with this piece. Having two actors playing each role, one physically, and one vocally, as Deaf West always does, sometimes works against this particular material. In Homelife, there were opportunities to use more of the actors physicality, especially when the play really becomes about language and the volume of their voices is meant to be a focus. The play doesn’t do that, it sticks to a pretty straightforward staging, and so some of the tension is lowered because of it.
The Zoo Story is more effective, and in fact the dual performance works completely as part of the world, and never pulls focus, mostly because of Russell Harvard’s exceptional performance. His Jerry is filled with energy and humor, and he fully commands the stage at all times.
While there are some production issues with Homelife, the play works fairly well as a complete piece, which is surprising considering the two pieces were written nearly fifty years apart. What this shows is the masterful genius of Edward Albee, at two very different points in his life. The younger Albee is passionate and filled with desperate longing, and the elder Albee, who is more rational and willing to accept the limitations that comes with being human. It’s definitely worth a viewing for anyone wanting to be exposed to more of Edward Albee, or just a compelling night of theater that asks big questions about life.
Deaf West Theatre Presents:
Edward Albee’s at Home at the Zoo
Directed by Coy Middlebrook
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Lovelace Studio Theater
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd.
Beverly Hills, CA 90210