AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Edward Albee
Directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman
Presented by and at the American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St. at Mason, San Francisco / (415) 749-2228

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Audiences at Edward Albee's groundbreaking "The Zoo Story," which premiered in 1969, were left with many questions. Most of them concerned Peter, the middle-aged, middle-class man in the two-character, one-act play. They knew a lot more about the stranger, Jerry, who starts talking to him as Peter sits on a bench trying to read in New York's Central Park. Most of the questions focused on Peter's character. What made him tick? What was his home life like?

Albee undertook to answer those questions in a 2004 one-act, "Homelife," which takes place in Peter's apartment before he goes to the park At first, the two plays were been performed together under the title "Peter and Jerry." Now they're called "At Home at the Zoo." That's the combination being staged by American Conservatory Theater under the direction of Rebecca Bayla Taichman. And now that Albee has addressed at least some of the questions in "The Zoo Story," audiences are left with new and different questions: What happens when Peter gets home from what turns out to be a tragedy in the park? Does he tell Ann, his wife? If so, how does she react, and how is their relationship affected? And observers might be wondering what they would do in a similar situation. Maybe Albee needs to write a third one-act play as a sequel.

Even though Peter, played by Anthony Fusco, is featured in both acts, the two are quite different from each other. The first act comes off as more interesting because there's more give-and-take conversation between him and Ann, played by René Augesen. She does most of the talking at first, coming into their living room from the kitchen while he, a book editor, sits reading what he says is a boring manuscript. As the conversation continues, however, he becomes more involved and they talk about their love for each other and what they want from their relationship. He says he wants "a smooth voyage on a safe ship." She says, "We love each other too safely." She wants more excitement, especially sexually. They actually do become animated, bouncing on their sofa, but they get hold of themselves, say they love each other, and he goes off to read in the park, as is his habit on a Sunday afternoon. George and Martha of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" they are not.

Perhaps there will be more excitement, though not necessarily sexual, after Peter returns from his encounter with Jerry, played by Manoel Felciano. Jerry seems intent on telling Peter about his just-completed visit to the zoo, but all we learn is that he was at the lions' cage when the keeper went to feed it. Jerry never gets around to saying much more about that. Instead he launches into an extended monologue about the seedy rooming house where he lives, the other tenants, the disgusting landlady and his efforts to make peace with her ferocious dog. Along the way, we realize that Jerry is a seriously disturbed young man, something that becomes even more apparent when he tries to commandeer Peter's place on the bench even though there's identical bench right next to it. The confrontation leads to tragedy, though not instigated by Peter.

Robert Brill's set design for the two acts is quite revealing, especially for Peter and Ann's apartment, which is mostly stark white in decor, lacking anything on the walls to warm it up. The park scene is equally simple, with just the two benches and a green backdrop (lighting by Stephen Strawbridge). Likewise, Jake Rodriguez's sound design is revealing -- virtual quiet in the apartment, contrasted with airplane and traffic noise as well as birds in the park. David F. Draper's costumes suit the characters, with Ann and Peter in casual but stylish outfits and Jerry scruffy in jeans, a sweatshirt and knit hat.

Augesen and Fusco work beautifully together in their act. Because there's so little action, the tension and characters could be difficult to develop in less skilled hands, but these two actors navigate it skillfully, guided by Taichman. Fusco continues his fine work in the second act, but Felciano's Jerry grows tiresome. One wonders why Peter doesn't just walk away from him early in the encounter because he's such a manic pest.

With 45 years separating the writing of the two plays, one can see that Albee has become even more skilled than he was in the past. Thus, "At Home at the Zoo" can be seen not only as a thought-provoking evening at the theater but also the chance to see the growth of an artist.

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