“Whyever would you want to marry a man who published textbooks, I might’ve been asked. I don’t know, it might be fun.” Peter (Robert Sean Leonard) and Ann (Katie Finneran) live comfortably on East 74th Street with two daughters, two cats, and two parakeets. Their marriage, described by the content husband, is, as they both wished, “a smooth voyage on a safe ship.” Peter is a sweet, unexcitable man whose attention is often elsewhere. Ann has found that years of domestic tranquility are a bit too smooth and a tad more safe than she’d prefer.
Katie Finneran and Robert Sean Leonard
In the course of a seemingly offhand conversation, the two start talking about cleaning fireplace irons and segue to Ann’s dream about having body parts hacked off and Peter’s recently noticed physical anomaly. She says she’s happy, he says he’s happy, but there are hairline cracks. They admit to never discussing “…the things wrong about which nothing can be done.” The couple’s sex life occupies the rest of the conversation, but actual issues are imagination and openness. It’s realistic, warm, amusing, and to the outside observer, worrisome.
Both actors are utterly natural. Leonard is expert with silence, facial expression, and small, exquisitely articulate hand movements. Reserve and embarrassment are as palpable as affection and, ultimately, confusion. Finneran is a constant delight. While Peter barely shifts in his chair, her physical fluidity manifests inhibition, yet no move seems staged. Thought subtly shows on the actress’s bright face. Reactions are wry, loving, unsettled.
The Zoo Story
Robert Sean Leonard and Paul Sparks
Peter takes a book to a bench he frequents in Central Park. Approached by Jerry (Paul Sparks), he at first ignores the scruffy man, then, gradually allows a breach of privacy. The provocative stranger lives in an Upper West Side rooming house that sounds like a temporary homeless residence. There’s beaverboard between his room and the next. Tenants are colorfully motley. Peter discovers this (and is shocked) after a prolonged period of answering Jerry’s often too personal questions and nodding during the his rambling monologue. Is he subconsciously spurred to do this by Ann’s accusations of conservatism?
The mysterious street person is theatrical, insightful, and vaguely threatening. He calls himself crazy, notes Peter’s education while not admitting his own, yet is aware of Baudelaire and uses words like misanthropic. A mimed story about a vicious dog is worth coming to theater. Peter is mesmerized. Despite ample chance to exit, he uncharacteristically loses control caught up in the dangerously escalating situation.
Paul Sparks and Robert Sean Leonard
Paul Sparks is terrific. His quicksilver performance is like watching a fine jazz musician. Riffs start and stop, speed up and slow down with irrational precision. Isolated phrases are yelled or arrive with an accent. The actor moves like a suspicious animal; a restless dancer. We never doubt Jerry’s in the throes of something ungovernable. While inclination is to want Peter to run, we too are riveted…until too late.
Director Lila Neugebauer has encouraged performances like a capella vocals. Nothing interferes with or distracts from the inhabited reality of three people before us. Every move is dictated by the moment. Focus is absolute. Fastidious and discriminating work.
If one were writing a thesis on playwright Edward Albee, these two one-acts, written 45 years apart, would be an excellent example of range. The Zoo Story, initially titled Peter and Jerry, emerged with youthful spit and vigor in 1959. Its prequel, Homelife, a more mature and thoughtful piece, was commissioned by The Hartford Stage in 2004. The two pieces fit so well Albee’s estate now insists their being performed together.
Andrew Lieberman’s uber-minimal Set – artistic unraveling? – works well to keep our attention on characters.
Several instances of false slapping are unfortunate as is the final physical tussle. (Unkledave’s Fight-House)
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Katie Finneran and Robert Sean Leonard
Edward Albee’s At Home At The Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
480 West 42nd Street