Friday, February 19, 2010

I've Been to the Zoo, Part 1

The other night I had an educational experience, one that almost certainly could not be had at school (and probably would not be desirable if it was--the coincidence and spontanaity adds to its appeal). I attended a professional production of a play I directed at my local community theater just a few months ago. I directed Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, but incidentally, that's not what I saw the other night. Not exactly. The reasons for that will make up the rest of this first post of a short series about what this particular experience has to tell me about interpreting a play.

The Zoo Story begins with a well-to-do man, Peter, reading on a bench in Central Park, who is approached by the dishevelled Jerry, who proceeds to tell him increasingly troubling things about his life and eventually bringing Peter down to his level. Written in 1958, The Zoo Story was Albee's first play. As of right now, it is also his most recent play. Sorta. What happened is Albee went back and wrote a prequel act, Homelife, involving Peter's interactions with his wife Ann before he decides to go read at the park. Along the way he made some slight modifications to The Zoo Story, the second act of this new work, At Home at the Zoo: some lines were altered (a "colored queen" is now a "black queen"), Peter's income is adjusted for inflation, and Jerry's final speech is reduced to a few lines. According to Wikipedia, and implied by a New York Times interview, professional companies must produce At Home at the Zoo in its entirety. Non-profit groups can still produce The Zoo Story as a standalone, which is what I opted to do last Fall. I hadn't read Homelife, and felt The Zoo Story was fine on its own. (I also didn't want to tackle a full-length show for my first directorial outing, but that's beside the point.) Going into At Home at the Zoo, my sense was that the new act had to justify its existence, as any part of any story must.

Unfortunately, it didn't. The writing itself is fine--though Albee seems to be in love with a dependent clause construction (that) eliminates the word 'that,' as I just did; seriously, it comes up four or five times and, while gramattically correct, feels artificial--I had some good laughs and cringes. But it's inconsequential. The particulars we learn about Peter and his wife are only making explicit that which was already implied in the original play: they're a comfortable but bored middle-class couple, and Peter is somewhat submissive to her and daughters' wishes, in order to keep everyone happy. There's never much at stake, because the very identity of this half-new play dictates that the real meat is coming after the intermission. The Zoo Story was never intended to have more than its very effective single act, and so all of its firepower is, naturally, spent there. Additionally, great many people have seen or read The Zoo Story already and know what's coming, and the events of Homelife are far too chronologically close to it to hold any real surprises. Had Albee substantially revised The Zoo Story to balance the two acts out and shake things up--and made it the first act, to announce that all bets are off--the new act would have more to do than kill time before Jerry comes on the scene.

Albee is, of course, free to do what he will with his play and his characters, but what he has done is still baffling. Jerry is a commanding presence, but that's because the play is fundamentally about him; Peter exists in The Zoo Story as an audience surrogate and an example of bland, bourgeois success that his exposure to Jerry contaminates. My sense was, and still is, that The Zoo Story is complete story, a powerful one made so by its compactness. It suffers in At Home At The Zoo by the dead weight of the first act. Albee has objected in the past to play development conferences, that:

"It is to de-ball the plays; to castrate them; to smooth down all the rough edges so they can't cut, can't hurt. It's to make them commercially tolerable to a smug audience. It's not to make plays any better. Most playwrights who write a good play write it from the beginning."

At Home At The Zoo proves him mostly right, in the worst possible ways, and he didn't even need a conference.

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