AT HOME AT THE ZOO Theater Review
In 1968 Simon and Garfunkel sang: “Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo. I do believe it, I do believe it’s true.” And after witnessing Deaf West Theatre’s production of Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo I’ve become a true believer. Serious theatergoers shouldn’t monkey around - head down ASAP to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts to catch this run, which is short on number of days but long on profundity, leavened by Albee’s wicked wit about the human (or lack of) condition.
This is a very unique live stage experience delivered in a singular way on the boards of the Wallis’ 150-seat Lovelace Studio Theater. In both acts two hearing impaired thesps perform onstage, using facial expressions, body language and American Sign Language. Offstage, or on the side of the set, a pair of actors literally give voice to what the onstage pair of protagonists are communicating via ASL.
This is a rare way for both hearing and non-hearing audiences to partake of a play together. The first time I ever encountered a technique like this was a few years back when I attended Deaf West’s adaptation of the musical Big River. At first, when DWT’s unspooling of Huckleberry Finn’s adventures began, I was put off and even annoyed by the signing (which, as I recall correctly, was done - at least in some cases - by actors who also did their own speaking). But after about 10 minutes or so, I really got into the show and ended up loving it - especially the extra layer of expression the highly visual signing added.
In addition to thematic concerns, the common thread in the Albee production is Peter, portrayed by Troy Katsur (who flowed on Broadway in the Tony-nommed Big River), and by his “narrator,” Jake Eberle. Both appear in Act One:Homelife and Act Two: The Zoo Story. Indeed, the character of Peter first appeared in Albee’s short play The Zoo Story in 1959. Albee didn’t write its prequel Homelife until 2004. Together, these combined one-acters - which bookend the alpha and omega of Albee’s playwriting career - have come to form the two act At Home at the Zoo.
In Act I, Peter is at his East 74th Street apartment in Manhattan’s posh “silk stocking district” (and only five blocks from where I attended Hunter College!) and absorbed while reading the manuscript for a textbook his firm is publishing. His wife, Ann (Amber Zion, who has appeared Off-Broadway and on TV in CSI: NY and commercials), disrupts his reading in an attempt to reconnect on a deeper level with her mate. Stage veteran Paige Lindsey White, who has also appeared on TV programs such as Showtime’s Shameless, provides Ann’s increasingly desperate voice, full of yearning and burning for a walk on the wilder side. The married middle-aged couple’s verbal and signed sparring is trademark Albee, who’s most famous play is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Like George and Martha’s patter in the latter, Peter and Ann joust, parry and thrust as their staid relationship is dissected. Ann’s point is that beneath their “civilized” veneer, humans still have an animalistic side and she wants her basic instincts fulfilled. Bored and complacent, Ann doesn’t just want to “make love”: She wants to “fuck.” (They are a bit like the characters played by Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise in Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut.)
After their tryst, Peter decides to leave their well-appointed Upper East Side duplex (simply but effectively designed with a bars motif suggestive of zoos by Karyl Newman, who also garbed the thesps) to go to his favorite bench in nearby Central Park. After the intermission, Newman’s set consists of five panels bearing photo murals of the park and a bench where Peter sits reading, minding his own business - that is, until Jerry, who is described a “permanent transient,” shows up after visiting the Central Park Zoo to further disrupt Sunday in the park with Peter.
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Jerry (who is given voice by stage and screen actor Jeff Alan-Lee) may be a marginalized, mentally ill character, but boy oh boy, can he spin a spellbinding yarn. However, most of his tales have a disturbing edge and things get progressively darker (along with the photo murals’ lighting). In a great, incisive critique of capitalism, the possessive Peter and Jerry clash over private property ownership and rights - they are, in effect, “Jerry-mandering” a district. In the process layers of their humanity are stripped back as their inner animals are unleashed. Who is more “uncivilized” than the other? The urbane publisher or the vagabond philosopher who is probably off his meds - and his rocker?
On opening night, the brilliant, riveting Russell Harvard stole the show as Jerry (he alternates in the role with Tyrone Giordano, who takes over March 16-26). It’s really hard to take your eyes off of Harvard (even if you are a Yale Man, boola boola!). I first encountered this great actor a few years ago when he starred in the award-winning Tribes at the Mark Taper Forum. Since then I’ve watched him weave his spells onscreen in the offbeat TV series Fargo and 2007’s There Will Be Blood, co-starring Daniel Day-Lewis, who schooled Harvard well in Method acting. And wow, is there ever a method to Harvard’s madness as he tears up the stage in Zoo. Bravo, Russell!
As a wordsmith, I couldn’t help wonder how precise and exact Albee’s biting, insightful dialogue was translated via the signing? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that the extremely expressive, visual rendering of the ASL once again greatly heightened the theatrical odyssey as we embarked toward Albee-land.
Although this critic is inclined to give Zoo a rave review, I am aware that this isn’t exactly every ticket buyer’s cup of tea. Anal sex, violence, homosexuality, mastectomies, circumcision and more are part of this not so circumspect exploration of what lurks on the dark side of the not-so human condition. This is one of those plays that are for more adventurous theatergoers, those hardy souls who wants their sensibilities to be challenged by what they see/hear/feel onstage. Bolder playgoers are likely to feel right at home At Home at the Zoo.
And kudos to the Wallis Annenberg Center, which continues to bring highly imaginative, off-the-beaten-path plays - such as Zoo and the U.K. Kneehigh theater company’s extraordinary 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, which just closed at Wallis’ larger venue, the Bram Goldsmith Theater - to the heart of bourgeois Beverly Hills.
This was my first time inside of the Wallis’ intimate spot, and on my right sat Marlee Matlee, the Oscar winner for 1986’s Children of a Lesser God, who was also directed by Troy Katsur in the indie No Ordinary Hero. In front of me sat Camryn Manheim, who scored a Golden Globe for the TV series The Practice. Experiencing Zoo in a smaller space actually enhanced the theatergoing experience. After seeing Albee’s searing play as rendered by Deaf West Theatre I fully agree with Simon and Garfunkel:
“What a gas you got to come and see
At the zoo.”
At Home at the Zoo is being performed Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. through March 26 in Lovelace Studio Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210. For info: (310) 246-3800; for tickets (310) 746.4000; www.thewallis.org/.
Film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting Sergei Eisenstein’s revolutionary classic Battleship Potemkin on Friday, 7:30 p.m., March 24, 2017 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. For info: firstname.lastname@example.org.