“Do you want to know what happened at the zoo?” If you do, make your way to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, home to the new Deaf West production of Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo—although be warned, the actual answer to that question is far from the point of the piece.
This marks the first major Los Angeles production of an Albee play since his death in September 2016, as well as Deaf West Theatre’s first production since their Spring Awakening, which achieved extraordinary success and acclaim in two Los Angeles runs, including at the Wallis in 2015, and later on Broadway. Deaf West is the premiere sign language theater company in the United States and pairs deaf and hearing actors to present plays and musicals in spoken English and American Sign Language simultaneously. The background of At Home at the Zoo is quite interesting. The Zoo Story, a short play that comprises act two, is Albee’s first ever play, written in 1959. Decades later in 2004 he decided the story, and particularly the character of Peter, deserved more exploration and he wrote Homelife, which comprises act one, as a companion prequel.
Albee’s work is largely considered to be polarizing, and this piece will surely be no exception. In Homelife, we meet Peter (Troy Kotsur, with Jake Eberle as his voice), a mild-mannered textbook publisher who lives his life neatly within the margins of expectation. He lives with his wife, Ann (Amber Zion, with Paige Lindsey White as her voice), two daughters, two cats, and two parakeets (see, that title is making sense already). The play begins with Ann telling him they should talk, and the two spend a while beating around the bush, covering a variety of vaguely shocking and occasionally disturbing topics. They eventually get to the crux of the issue, which is latent dissatisfaction in their relationship, mostly on Ann’s part. The first act ends with Peter leaving, unsettled, to go read a book in Central Park.
In The Zoo Story, Peter is approached in the park by Jerry (Russell Harvard, with Jeff Alan-Lee as his voice), who proclaims he’s “been to the zoo.” Jerry, who seems a bit unhinged, is clearly lonely and seeking a meaningful human interaction. He regales Peter with stories of his rather sad life, spending a great deal of time exploring encounters with his landlady and her mean dog, who has become Jerry’s nemesis. When Peter has had enough of listening and attempts to leave, things take a dark, shocking turn.
The addition of Homelife definitely adds meaningful context to The Zoo Story. Knowing Peter’s state of mind having just walked away from a very emotionally charged conversation with his wife goes a long way in explaining why he both responds to what Jerry has to say and is horrified by it. Between the two pieces Peter has a complete character arc, which was Albee’s very mission when revisiting his story.
Directed by Coy Middlebrook, the staging seamlessly weaves the two languages together, all on a beautiful and inventive set by Karyl Newman. In act one, the actors playing the voices stand in the shadows, off to the side, whereas in act two, they feel more a part of the action, primarily sitting on a parallel bench from their counterparts. All of the performances were first rate, finding many emotional layers in the characters and building dramatic tension perfectly. While it is possible their Spring Awakening was a rare, lightning-in-a-bottle moment where a staging like this was able to find and illuminate a new layer of meaning in the source material, I did not feel that way here. At Home at the Zoo is a very successful production in its accessibility to deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing audiences alike, but the addition of American Sign Language did not seem to find anything new or deeper in Albee’s words or characters, leading me to wonder why Deaf West chose this piece specifically.
This play is unsettling. You will not feel comfortable watching it, nor should you. Ultimately, the conversations and events portrayed were a bit outlandish for my taste. While the underlying message of Peter and Ann’s conversation is rather normal, the way they go about discussing it does not feel like a talk two real people would have. For the most part, I enjoyed act two more, until its final moments, when it also stretched believability a bit too far for me to invest. Far-fetched situations are a difficult way to successfully communicate rather simple themes, but then again, Albee has always dealt in the extreme. While the source material missed the mark, this is a fine staging of it, although not one that is able to make up for its shortcomings.
Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo runs at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills through March 26th. Tickets start at $40 and can be purchased at www.TheWallis.org. Please note that Russell Harvard will perform as Jerry through March 15th, at which point Tyrone Giordano will take over for the remainder of the run.