Friday, October 22, 2010

At Home At The Zoo (Victory Gardens Biograph Theater) GUEST REVIEWER JOE TANSINO

I’m fairly certain that there exists an infinite number of parallel universes, each playing out a different, alternative reality based on whether certain things happen or don’t happen. In some of those realities there was no Big Bang or whatever created life on Earth and so those realities don’t really hold much interest for me, because everything is all just black empty space or asteroids bouncing around. Then there are a whole host of realities where dinosaurs never started a nuclear war and wiped themselves out, and so Earth is totally different, mostly just pterodactyls and alligators fighting over monkeys, which never evolved into men because it just didn’t happen for them in this or that particular reality. In another subset of realities, the subset that is really most interesting to me to think about, human civilization is more or less the same as it is right here and now as I’m writing this blog. But in the parallel universe I’m not writing this blog, maybe I’m watching the Jetsons or choking on a peanut instead.

In a nearby parallel universe, I am a dear close friend of Edward Albee, our fifty-some-odd difference in age notwithstanding. Ed and I sit around in his Tribeca loft surrounded by African art, eating peanuts and playing Wii. I say to Ed, “Hey I’ve got this idea to write a play that is basically Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but in outer space!“ and Ed turns to me and says, “Holy Shit, Joe! you just blew my freaking mind, and you know what? I’ve got all these uncashed royalty checks I’ve just been hiding in this solid gold lion’s head, why don’t I just go cash them and commission you to write this brilliant play, and you know, I know some people in the theater scene -- maybe we can get this baby of yours produced some day!” And then of course I write the play, and Ed gets it produced, and I’m an instant success, so I quit my job sweeping up trash at the Port Authority.

This is actually happening in a parallel universe, because every imaginable thing is happening in some parallel universe. Of course there are also lots and lots of parallel universes where I’m dead or where I never even existed, so I don’t sit around wishing that I had another chance to spin the wheel and see where I end up. Because the chance that I’ll actually end up living in the reality where I’m playing Wii with Edward Albee and writing hit plays is actually pretty slim, pretty much nil no matter how you look at it. I’m content to stick it out in this reality, where I can occasionally take in an Edward Albee play, marvelling that this guy is still alive and still actively involved in the staging of his plays.

And so my fiancée and I went to see At Home At the Zoo recently at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, courtesy of the League of Chicago Theaters Free Night of Theater. I thought it was weird that our seats were way up in the back of the theater even though over half the front section of the orchestra was empty.

But after asking the Saints if it was cool to move closer, we grabbed a couple empty seats up front.

At Home At the Zoo pairs Albee’s first play, the one-act Zoo Story (written over 50 years ago!), with a prequel titled Homelife that Albee wrote in the last 10 years. The Zoo Story is about a well-to-do textbook editor named Peter (deftly played by Chicago native Tom Amandes) who strikes up a conversation with a crazy person in Central Park, gets verbally abused and slapped around, and then [SPOILER] kills him. Homelife takes place just before Peter leaves to go to Central Park. Peter is having a boring conversation with his wife Ann (the classy Annabel Armour) that turns into a discussion about cancer and circumcisions and then their sex life, and then [SPOILER] his wife slaps him.

The first twenty minutes or so of the play had me wondering why I ever found Edward Albee so engaging. My mind started to wander to a parallel universe where I pitch my play idea to Edward Albee, except in this parallel universe he tells me it sucks, that there are too many lightsaber fights and not enough introspective dialogue, and so I murder him with a Massai hunting spear. The dialogue in Homelife is so droll and it’s clear what Albee is trying to do but for Christ’s sake THESE PEOPLE ARE AWFUL.

[SPOILERS] Peter whines that his circumcision is going away and his wife wonders aloud whether she might hack off her tits to avoid ever getting breast cancer. Then things take a turn and the couple start talking about how boring their lives are. Peter is content with their boring lives but his wife apparently wants him to “do” her like a wild animal, which is something Peter is afraid to do. Peter’s explanation for why he is afraid of having rough sex is one of the highlights of the first act. [/SPOILERS]

Somehow, and this is one of the reasons why I love Albee, he starts out with a really mundane exchange between husband and wife and turns it into this graphic, emotional confrontation, and you have no idea how exactly he got from point A to point B. These characters in less capable hands could have ruined the production. Peter and Ann are the sort of dull, loathsome characters that most audience members fear being or becoming, and listening to them blather on endlessly about textbooks and their boring lives is excruciating. It is a credit to Amandes and Armour that they were able to carry the momentum through a trying first act, and I thought the payoff at the end of the act made the suffering worth it.

The second act, the original Zoo Story, follows a similar trajectory. After Peter fails to connect emotionally or physically with Ann and leaves the apartment psychically castrated, he takes his book to Central Park and sits on a nice bench he claims is his own. A seedy character happens on him and starts talking nonsense about the zoo. Peter is too polite to shun the guy, whose name is Jerry, so he ends up listening to Jerry ramble on about his sad life for approximately 46 minutes. And things are going fine until Jerry decides he wants Peter’s bench, which is when the action turns tragic. Marc Grapey, who plays Jerry, deftly skates the line between schizophrenia and charisma, convincingly portraying just the sort of guy I would strike up a conversation with in an isolated part of Central Park.

This is a really great play that reminds me why I try not to strike up conversations with crazy people and that also explains why all the men in my family warned me never to get married.

Go and see this play so that Edward Albee will have more royalty money to give me, and I can finally write George and Martha in Outer Space.


-Joe Tansino

-Anderson Lawfer, Eric Roach

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