Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo at ACT

Let me begin with an admission, in the spirit of full disclosure: Edward Albee went to my high school. I've shared a pedestrian dining hall lunch with him when he visited three years ago. And in the 45 minutes I spent with him, both Albee's genius and his jaded view of the world were evident. So the strangeness of his plays is no shocker.

Let me now begin with an admonition: the audience at last night's production was incredibly rude. A number of cell phones went off, prompting the stage manager to announce to the audience after intermission, "Please kindly turn off your cell phones." Applause followed the announcement, and yet one more cell phone went off during the performance. Furthermore, the woman behind me unwrapped her Altoids not right before the lights came up on the stage but right after. In what world that makes sense, I don't know. Later on, similar to what Clay experienced when he attended this production (see his earlier post on this blog), I too caught a whiff of alcohol, but this offender was not openly sipping from a glass -- he had a flask.

The sanctity of the theatre is officially dead.

Albee's At Home at the Zoo is really his first produced play, The Zoo Story, coupled with a new prequel called Homelife. The first act finds Peter and Ann, a married couple, who supposedly have a full (but completely silent) household with two children, cats and two parakeets, chatting about everything from the textbooks Peter publishes for a living to breasts, vanishing circumcisions and the mechanics and passion--or lack thereof--of sex. As they talk, you're never quite sure how they are jumping from one thing to another. I'm not sure if I found this realistic or unrealistic, though.

In fact, realism is where this play falters. I think it doesn't know where it wants to fall. Albee is known for his surrealism-- think Play About the Baby or Seascape--so in producing what amounts to a "day in the life" play, albeit with a little surprise at the end, ensuring this is no ordinary day, one can't help but question.

In the second act, Peter is reading in Central Park when a crazy man named Jerry comes up and starts vomiting up his personal life. In New York City, no self-respecting man would sit there and actually engage this man who is clearly off his rocker, despite the natural charm of actor Manoel Felciano. The educated, wealthy couple talks with essentially the same voice as crazy poor man Jerry, against all odds. Everyone walks a fine line between pedestrian and stylized speech, and at times it was distracting rather than engaging.

The set design certainly worked in harmony with the themes of repression and desperation in the play. Ann, however, plays the woman longing to break free of the repression surrounding her. One wonders why she doesn't just dirty up her white, sterile living room a la Lane in Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House. Instead she opts to slap her husband for no reason. The austerity of the house is matched by the austerity of scenic designer Robert Brill's Central Park, which again takes us out of realism, because Central Park should be bustling and busy, particularly given the abundant ambient noise.

At some point during one of Jerry's tirades, however, that ambient noise stopped. I am not sure when. It was just suddenly clear that Jerry was screaming into silence, much like Peter and Ann had in the first act. Silence permeates this show, in fact; there are perhaps too many pregnant pauses in the first act. But every time one of those pauses came around, this unusually noisy audience I had the great fortune to be a part of was rapt with attention. They were possibly the only moments when there was no rustling of paper, ringing of cell phones, people getting up to go to the lobby for God knows what reason. Complete silence in the theatre. To quell this audience, and make that ambient noise fade to the background until it's gone--that takes some powerful acting.

To me, that is the best thing the production had going for it. Nothing much happens in this play; it's really just talking heads. With an austere set only two people inhabit at any given time, it would be easy to lose the audience. But the actors' thoughtful performances, wholly committing to extreme characters, and the poignancy of Albee's poetry, however flawed in terms of voice, make two hours of talking heads bearable, even revelatory.

Manoel Felciano is brilliant as Jerry. He stole the show. Rene Augesen, the ACT standby, was predictably wonderful too. And Anthony Fusco, whose job for most of Act Two is really just to listen believably to Jerry, accomplishes this hardest of theatrical feats very admirably. But Jerry is the lesson of the play, Jerry is the crux, and Felciano infused the role with humanity, quirkiness and quiet desperation.

All in all, the production is flawed only by Albee's words. Perhaps this can be accounted for by the nearly 50-year time span between when Albee wrote the second act and the first, or maybe it lies in the fact that this story was his first (although I found the second act--the earlier one--stronger than the more recently-penned one). There was an awkwardness and a sense of the words trying to find a character. But the acting and production value of ACT's mounting is stellar. Go see it before it closes July 5. But unwrap your Altoids early, stay put, turn off your cell phones and leave the flasks at home.

Photo: Anthony Fusco (right) and Manoel Felciano. Photo by Kevin Berne.

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At July 2, 2009 at 5:49 PM , Blogger Carl Benson said...

"The sanctity of the theatre is officially dead."

Good. It's been far too sanctimonious for far too long.

At July 6, 2009 at 10:56 AM , Blogger Clay Lord said...

Ha! Carl, I see where you're coming from, but certainly there's a balance to be had between the old theatre mores and whatever's coming next? It seems to me we can't just disregard the (I assume) majority of the audience who seeks a relatively quiet, uninterrupted-by-Altoids experience. I think it's true that we can always try to shift those barriers a bit (I'm all for the flask, although I'd assume the theatre would prefer to sell that guy the alcohol) -- but the ringing of cell phones is a harder pill for me to swallow.

At July 7, 2009 at 12:05 PM , Blogger Carl Benson said...

"It seems to me we can't just disregard the (I assume) majority of the audience who seeks a relatively quiet, uninterrupted-by-Altoids experience."

While it's plausible that a majority of current theatergoers would enjoy a nice quiet show, who's to say that's the case for the majority of people? From my experience, I doubt it.

Yes, cell phones are annoying and you should turn them off during a show, but if the sound of an opening candy wrapper is enough to ruin someone's enjoyment of a show, perhaps that person is just a curmudgeon. Theater can't keep pretending it's so precious that a sneez destroys a show. If curmudgeons dictate what we are and are not allowed to do, who dictates when we're allowed to relax and have some fun?

At July 7, 2009 at 4:33 PM , Blogger rebecca longworth said...

Speaking of theatre mores writ large, one audience member at the performance I attended arose from his seat at the climax of Peter's speech in Act One, loudly pronounced it "disgusting!" and proceeded to make his way to the nearest exit.

But, the exit he headed for wasn't the nearest exit; between he and it sat many other rapt patrons past whom he had to step, continuing to proclaim his "disgust" the entire way as the action continued onstage.

I thought the whole scene was fantastic, proof of the theatre's waning but still-present ability to shock; and it made me long for the days when art could cause riots. I think Mr. Albee would have been delighted about my disgusted gentleman, if not the cell phones and candy wrappers (which really can be very disturbing).

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