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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