What does it take to turn a mild-mannered, educated, urbane man into a violent animal? Edward Albee’s iconic one-act “The Zoo Story” set just such a man, Peter, on a bench in New York’s Central Park. There he’s approached by a fast-talking youth, Jerry, who engages him, beguiles him, and eventually baits him into a fight.
In the 1960s, “The Zoo Story” was one of the plays that established Edward Albee as an important and provocative new voice in American theater. Why he decided to burden this work with a full-length expansion, including a prequel, is a mystery. At Home at the Zoo starts in Peter’s living room before he goes off to the park. Peter and his wife, Ann, discuss the state of his work as a textbook publisher (boring but lucrative) and the state of their marriage (boring but comfortable). Then Peter picks up his book and goes off to read on his favorite park bench.
This little domestic scene is supposed to give us more insight into Peter, but it’s really unnecessary. We see this buttoned-up guy in his tweed jacket and cords, sitting on a bench alone reading Baudelaire. We don’t need to know what he said or didn’t say to his wife in order to understand his reaction to the wild-haired and wild-eyed young man who approaches him. Frankly, several audience members never made it to the park—the first act was so unsatisfying that they left during intermission.
Jeff Allin (Peter), Colleen Delany (Ann), and James McMenamin (Jerry) do their best with the material at hand. Allin embodies both the awkward physicality and the middle-aged angst of Peter perfectly. Delany does a fine job as Peter’s vaguely dissatisfied wife. McMenamin has the meatiest role, and he takes full advantage of it—prowling the stage and seducing the audience with tales of his bizarre life experiences. He hypnotizes us just as he mesmerizes Peter.
Albee’s biting wit is ever-present. Even the most mundane domestic dialogue—Peter’s ignorance of the workings of a microwave, Ann’s musings on her insomnia—manage to sound smart. But even a towering talent like Albee can’t make At Home at the Zoo work.
At Arena Stage through April 24. Buy tickets ($85) at Arena Stage’s Web site.