Pity poor Peter (Robert Sean Leonard). Oh sure, at first it all seems good. He’s a textbook publisher with a (presumably) nice apartment on East 74th Street, a six-figure salary, and an orderly household consisting of his lovely wife Ann (a winsome Katie Finneran), two daughters, two cats, and two parakeets. The most he seems to suffer from is a mild and not entirely un-self-satisfied sense of boredom with his pleasantly predictable life. But as the hero of Edward Albee’s one-act The Zoo Story (his first play, first performed in 1959), he’s doomed to repeat the strange, disorienting and ultimately terrifying events of this frequently performed two-hander, and now he’s also forced to live through an almost as unsettling prequel, Homelife, first performed with The Zoo Story. In this two-hander (but two different hands), a strange, disquieting conversation with his wife sets Peter up for the events in the park. Albee’s estate now requires that the two plays always be performed together. So there’s no escape for the hapless Upper East Sider. But that’s all the better for audiences everywhere.
It’s not that Peter seems like a bad guy. He’s nice, soft-spoken and even mildly aware of his own complacence. When his wife comes into the room where he’s reading and utters the terrifying words, “We should talk,” he doesn’t respond until she’s already apparently given up and left the room again, but he gamely does try to pick up his end. In the conversation that eventually does ensue, it’s clear that his whimsical wife does in fact love him. But as she gradually manages to articulate during their discussions of voluntary mastectomy, circumcision and a myriad of other subjects, she doesn’t think that he’s capable of loving her the way she wants him to, with a passion and need that transcend his love for her and partake of something more primal, even animal. Judged and found wanting, he can’t deny it. Mildly, he mentions that he’s going to go outside to read in the park. And that, of course, is where The Zoo Story begins.
Peter, who seems fated never to finish his book, sits down on his park bench to read and is accosted by Jerry (Paul Sparks), a bum who lives in a boarding house on the Upper West Side. He’s vaguely menacing but also vaguely friendly, and his stories are thoughtful and compelling enough that Peter is willing to hear him out. But his questions become more and more intrusive (and manipulative), and his tales grow more and more off-putting, as he narrates his attempts to befriend and then kill his landlady’s unfriendly and unhappy dog, a story that seems to turn into a despairing parable about the impossibility of real contact between any two creatures. To avoid spoiling the play for anyone who still has never seen it, let’s just say that the unexpected burst of violence at the end is both inexplicable and inevitable, rounding out what surely must be the worst day of Peter’s hitherto rather tame life.
More than half a century after its first performance, The Zoo Story remains a phenomenal, chilling play, and while Homelife may seem slight by comparison, Lila Neugebauer’s deft direction of the duo shows how the two together build a damning picture of Peter’s world. Set on a barely furnished stage (the first play features an armchair and a door; the second, five park benches) designed by Andrew Lieberman, the emphasis falls squarely on the two characters who inhabit each play – and the acting is spectacular. Finneran brings both charm and a quiet desperation to her bored housewife. She’s more than resigned to her quiet, safe life – she’s perhaps even grateful and she’s making the most of it with grace and a fluttery good humor. But Finneran forces us to see that she’s realized, deeply and profoundly, that it’s not everything she wants. Against her vivacity, Leonard’s Peter is befuddled, trying to follow her but never quite keeping up. He’s smart enough to know, however, that some irrevocable things have been said, and that no matter how good a husband he may be, he’s not enough.
Leonard embodies the connection between the two plays, and his readiness to meet Jerry’s advances seems less surprising after his wife’s repudiation of the safe life they’ve shared. Peter’s need and his genuine enjoyment of Jerry’s offbeat charm and even the sense of danger that he periodically emits is palpable. Sparks, however, dominates this play, just as Finneran did the previous one, with his eerily convincing portrayal of the sad and frightening Jerry. At times there seems to be a real affection growing between the two men, but like the vicious dog he’s obsessed with, Jerry can’t ever quite overcome his mistrust and Peter can’t ever open up enough to get past it, either.
There are moments in the plays, especially Homelife, in which the language feels anachronistic, but given how relevant their concerns are, it’s barely noticeable. What’s more meaningful here is the anatomizing of how language is used to express, or not quite express, the states of mind these characters experience but can’t quite share. The fault, in the end, may be less in the language than in the listening. Peter, for all his attempts to understand, can’t ever quite make the empathic leap that would let him really feel his wife’s or Jerry’s pain – let alone respond to it in a way they’d find meaningful. And in a way, why should he? It would necessitate a radical loss of control and order – chaos unleashed. But what Peter learns on this fateful day is that no matter how reticent you are, or how much you try to immerse yourself in boredom, chaos will come.