For just over half a century, Edward Albee’s first play, The Zoo Story—about a park-bench encounter between Peter, a reserved middle-class publisher, and Jerry, a volatile transient—stood its ground as a classic one-act. Now it’s a classic Act Two, permanently tethered to Homelife, a recently penned first-act addendum (the author will no longer allow professional theaters to present The Zoo Story on its own) in an evening called At Home at the Zoo. At Arena Stage’s Edward Albee Festival, audiences have the chance to decide whether that’s a diminishment or an enhancement.
I’ll come down tentatively on the enhancement side, though not because Mary B. Robinson’s flatfooted staging makes a particularly compelling case for the pairing. Where The Zoo Story is pointedly naturalistic and down-to-earth—a conversation between a conformist and an outcast that grows menacing and leads to violence—Homelife, which peeks into the East 74th Street apartment that Peter (Jeff Allin) shares with his wife Ann (Colleen Delaney), finds the author in an airier, more meta mood.
No topic is so concrete that this married couple can’t soften it with phrasing. Having one’s breasts sliced off? “I remember the night I thought about thinking about it,” offers Ann. Rage in lovemaking? It’s “what I can’t imagine imagining.” Chatter about circumcision, extramarital affairs, and cannibalism all present opportunities not for marital confrontation but for deflection. Albee and his absurdist brethren in the 1960s maintained that true communication was impossible—that’s a big part of what The Zoo Story is about—and all these years later, the topic is clearly still on the playwright’s mind. Peter and Ann don’t so much talk as talk about what they’d like to talk about. They’re distanced, barely connecting, as if they’ve been roommates for years, not spouses. They natter on about raising two girls, two parakeets, two cats, and as the specifics pile up, it’s increasingly hard to believe they know each other very well. Which may be the point, though if that’s the case, it’s undercut here by having the performers deliver their lines with such studied affectlessness that the dialogue sounds like...well, like dialogue in a play.
After intermission, Peter leaves Ann behind to read a book in the park, and the arrival of disheveled, garrulous Jerry (James McMenamin), spouting stories about liquored-up landladies and malevolent dogs, dispels all this airiness. McMenamin prowls the stage, flashing an unnerving smile, looking a bit like a young Jack Nicholson, and leaving little doubt that Peter’s aloofness won’t deflect him for a second.
“We have to know the effects of our actions,” Jerry avers, and the directness of that statement seems a rebuke to everything Peter stands for. The hypotheticals this quiet man and his wife deal with in their apartment won’t cut it in the park. Personal space isn’t a concept here—it’s real and violatable. Menace is physical, and the play works as it always has.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? By Edward Albee Directed by Pam MacKinnon; Steppenwolf Theatre Company; at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater to April 10
Much is also familiar in Steppenwolf Theatre’s revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the bleak, boozy 1962 marital shocker that cemented Albee’s reputation. Designer Todd Rosenthal’s studied, dreary New England faculty bungalow looks as down-at-heels and lived-in as ever, its well-stocked bar beckoning George (Tracy Letts) and Martha (Amy Morton) the moment they stagger home from a faculty meet-and-greet.
The dialogue’s familiar, too. “I swear, if you existed, I’d divorce you.” “That’s blood under the bridge.” “I said I was impressed; I’m beside myself with jealousy. What do you want me to do, throw up?” “Good, better, best, bested. How do you like that declension?” “You’re all flops. I am the Earth Mother, and you are all flops.” “We’ve played Humiliate the Host...what should we do now?...how about Hump the Hostess?”
I walked into Woolf knowing those lines and many, many more—and looking forward to hearing them delivered by Letts and Morton, the respective author and star of August: Osage County, another scabrous domestic melodrama that owes a lot to this play. But what caught me short in Pam MacKinnon’s oft-startling production was a linguistically unremarkable exchange near the start of the play that I’d never noticed before.
Albee’s opening, relationship-establishing scene, which always surprises me by being as guffaw-eliciting as anything penned by Neil Simon, surprised me again with its economy and wit—setup, punchline, setup, punchline—its snark and insult outlining a lifetime of marital strife. Martha is demanding another drink, George is protesting that that’s the last thing she needs. And then, with Martha sitting barefoot on the couch, and George slouching warily nearby, there’s an ever-so-brief lull in the hostilities. A tiny smile passes between them, their voices gentling for just three words:
George: Hello, honey.
And you suddenly see the sweethearts they’d been. Back before the booze, barbs, and bile, before orneriness calcified into viciousness. They’re murmuring hello to the kids they remember but don’t see in each other much any more, and they mean it. They really mean it. And that raises the stakes immeasurably. For an instant, it’s possible to imagine that fun and games, just this once, won’t lead to walpurgisnacht and exorcism.
Then their guests, Nick (Madison Dirks) and Honey (Carrie Coon), arrive, and the hostilities resume.
Letts is an uncharacteristically dominant George, making the milquetoast assistant professor’s passive-aggression into something more like active aggression; that makes for an intriguingly balanced first act, in which host and hostess are evenly matched as they lob emotional grenades at each other. Morton is brazen—a seductive Mrs. Robinson to Dirks’ callow biology prof—but she’s also more vulnerable than most Marthas, letting you see fear in her eyes when George starts altering the rules of their familiar games. Relegated to the sidelines, drunkenly peeling labels off brandy bottles, Coons blurts Honey’s lines with a precociousness that freshens.
George’s showiness proves a less effective strategy late in the play than at the outset. Letts makes him appear so confident and in control in Act Two that Nick looks like an idiot for letting down his guard and confiding in him. Still, the play’s built up much steam by that time, and it isn’t until the final act, when the performers start placing dramatic pauses between words through which whole caravans of feeling could be driven, that the evening falters.
Even then, the memory of that tiny smile that passed between George and Martha earlier lingers—an ache of nostalgia, to go with all that anguish.
The Edward Albee readings you should go to—and the ones you should skip.