Deaf West Theatre is back at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts after the company's heralded revival of "Spring Awakening," which catapulted itself to Broadway after its Beverly Hills triumph.
After proving once again that a musical can be reinvented by a troupe of deaf and hearing actors blending American Sign Language with the original spoken and sung text, Deaf West might seem to be lowering the bar in taking on two one-act plays in which no dancing or crooning is required.
But "Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo," which combines the playwright's 1959 breakthrough drama "The Zoo Story" with "Homelife," the prequel he wrote more than four decades later, turns out to be a formidable challenge for a company that has to work around Albee's most salient gift — his astringent language.
The production, directed by Coy Middlebrook, begins with "Homelife." The order makes sense narratively but raises other issues. Albee felt that Peter, the polite book publisher whose Central Park bench is invaded by Jerry, a frothing-at-the-mouth lost soul, needed some fleshing out. To right what he felt was the imbalance between the two characters, he wrote an accompanying one-act, set in Peter's Upper East Side home just prior to the fateful Central Park outing, in which a tense exchange between Peter and his wife, Ann, clarifies the extent to which the animal has been bred out of this all-too-respectable husband.
The problem is that "The Zoo Story," one of Albee's greatest plays, doesn't need elaboration. The battle between Peter and Jerry is strengthened by the enigmatic nature of the confrontation. Albee has been grouped in the Theatre of the Absurd, and one of the characteristics of this otherwise disparate confederate of playwrights that includes Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco and Harold Pinter is that the stage metaphors around which their plays are built aren't reducible to single interpretations.
"Homelife" narrows our understanding of "The Zoo Story." By heightening our awareness of Peter's overly domesticated nature, Albee transforms his classic into a much more straightforward clash between genteel repression and marginalized discontent.
If "Homelife" is the more satisfying of the two dramas in this Deaf West-Wallis co-production, it may have something to do with our curiosity about Ann, whose tantalizing psychology we have to work out for ourselves. Of course it helps that the strongest performance in the cast is by Amber Zion, who portrays this frustrated wife living with her politely distracted husband, two daughters and menagerie of pets in enviable Manhattan comfort.
The play begins with Peter (Troy Kotsur) poring over a manuscript of "probably the most important boring book" his company has ever published. His concentration is a fortress that initially blocks out Ann's out-of-nowhere remark, "We should talk" — a sign if ever there was one that all is not well in this upper-middle-class paradise.
Or is it a prison? The set by Karyl Newman (who also designed the costumes) bookends the living room with bars to create the effect of a kind of high-end zoo. Outside this deluxe pen, Jake Eberle and Paige Lindsey White provide the voices of Peter and Ann. They speak as Kotsur and Zion play and sign the roles, in a division of labor that fails to find the synergy between listening and seeing that was achieved in "Spring Awakening."
Kotsur lends Peter a middle-aged preppy distinctiveness, but his acting isn't able to preserve the subtlety of Albee's writing. Peter and Ann, like the great majority of Albee's characters, are fussbudgets when it comes to language. Kotsur's body language and facial expressions seem at times too large for such a self-editing character. The general outline is right but the fine points of Peter get lost in translation, especially for those in the audience not conversant with ASL.
Zion's portrayal builds in emotional power as she reveals the desperation Ann feels for a marriage that grown stale and safe. She has no reason to complain about her cozy cage, but she can no longer ignore the longing for sexual abandon. When Zion screams, the sound is that of an animal crying out for the wilderness. Her performance rescues "Homelife" with its feral intensity.
"The Zoo Story" picks up the action after Peter has left the apartment to read for pleasure in the park. His confrontation with Jerry, however, makes the standoff with Ann seem relatively tame. Early Albee is even harder on a character who willingly sacrifices his animal ferocity for the security and comfort of conventional routine.
The casting of Russell Harvard as Jerry sets up difficulties. (Tyrone Giordano takes over the role on March 16.) Harvard's Jerry seems substantially younger than Kotsur's Peter, creating an odd dynamic between the characters. Jerry's relative youthfulness lends an Oedipal current to his antagonism toward Peter, undermining the class resentment that Albee stresses and banishing the subtle homoeroticism between them.
But the bigger issue is the flailing theatricality of Harvard's performance. Jerry may be dangerous but Albee retains a tight grip on his words and deeds. Harvard plays the dramatic situation at the expense of the character. Kotsur's meek Peter isn't so much accosted by a stranger as overwhelmed by a cast member determined to leave a daredevil impression.
It doesn't help that the voices of Peter and Jerry are performed by actors (Eberle and Jeff Alan-Lee) who might as well be portraying other characters hanging around Central Park that afternoon. Their physical distinctiveness from their counterparts and their close proximity (they're stationed at a nearby bench) blur the stage picture.
"At Home at the Zoo" makes "The Zoo Story" seem as though it isn't the main attraction when in fact it's one of Albee's unequivocal masterpieces. Deaf West has made a valiant attempt, but the production sheds only sporadic light on these most eloquent of bestial plays.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo’
Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Lovelace Studio Theater, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 26
Tickets: $50-$60 (subject to change)
Information: (310) 746-4000 or www.TheWallis.org
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
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