Well, it isn’t “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, but it is as scathing in its depiction of a frustrated marriage as anything else Edward Albee ever wrote. And as performed by the incomparable players of Deaf West Theatre, it will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.
“Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo” is actually an amalgam of two one-act plays: “The Zoo Story” and then its prequel, “Home Life,” which was written later in order to provide a deeper initial context to the activities of its principals.
“Home Life,” which is performed first, introduces Peter and Ann, a long-married couple whose marriage has become routine and, dare I say it?, boring. Peter, a taller version of Woody Allen, is played by the magnificent Troy Kotsur, whose emotional signings are impeccably voiced by actor Jake Eberle. Peter’s wife Ann is signed by Amber Zion and reproduced verbally by Paige Lindsey White. In both cases the process is handled so smoothly that after a short time you lose track of who’s actually doing the talking.
The setting is Peter and Ann’s apartment on the East Side of New York on a quiet Sunday afternoon. Peter, who owns a small publishing house that specializes in text books, is totally engrossed in editing one of them. Suddenly, Ann enters with the dire line that always precedes a crisis: “We need to talk,” she says.
This announcement apparently takes the passive Peter by surprise and, because Ann is timid and non-confrontational, she begins slowly and they talk about inconsequential aspects of their relationship. But eventually the conversation gets to the point: Ann is sexually frustrated. She reassures Peter that although he is a good sex partner, she is longing for “magic and chaos” in their marriage. “We’ll never die,” she says. “We’ll just vanish.”
The long conversation that follows alternates between humor and pathos, but the major emotion is pain: Ann’s pain as she tries gently and unsuccessfully to express her needs, and Peter’s bewilderment as he tries to understand what she wants from him.
The scene ends with a surprising denouement, after which Peter marches off to the spot in Central Park where he sits and reads each Sunday afternoon.
Therein begins the second one-act, “The Zoo Story.” After sitting quietly with his book, Peter is virtually “accosted” by a grubby drifter, Jerry (the incredible Russell Harvard), who, uninvited, begins to tell Peter the details of his depressing and lonely life. Jerry’s signing is
vociferously decoded by the superb voice of Jeff Alan-Lee, and Peter listens, to be polite, and then to argue with this man who has made some devastating assumptions about him.
By way of examining the terrible emptiness of his life, Jerry launches into a long monologue about the other tenants of the building he inhabits and a grungy mongrel that terrorized him and that he eventually learned to love.
Eventually Peter becomes unnerved and then angered by Jerry’s comments and the scene continues until each character stands emotionally unpeeled before the other. The ending is powerful and moving. It’s the kind of play, deftly directed by Coy Middlebrook and magnificently performed by the company of six, that you won’t easily forget.
“Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo” will be performed in the Lovelace Studio Theater of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd. in Beverly Hills, Tuesdays-Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. through March 26th. For tickets, call (310) 746-4000 or go online to The Wallis.org.