Where the wild things are comfortably married

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(c) Liz Lauren

The encounter gets physical when Peter (Tom Amandes, left) meets Jerry (Marc Grapey) in Edward Albee's "At Home at the Zoo." 

Review: Edward Albee’s “At Home at the Zoo”
at Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, Chicago

Peter and Ann are cruising along in a marital comfort zone. Which means he’s bored and she’s angry – at him.

She’s seething, actually, with a feral rage. Ann even fantasizes about regressing into animalistic ferocity. And so Peter retreats further into the ennui of his work as a book editor. Until suddenly, astonishingly, it is he who finds himself with blood on his claws.

Such is the happy domestic storyline of Edward Albee’s “At Home at the Zoo,” a funny and frightening study in dysfunctional marriage brought to sharply detailed life at Victory Gardens.

Albee’s two-act play is really two complementary one-acters, “The Zoo Story” (1958) and “Homelife” (2003). The latter, a painfully revelatory scene between the aforementioned Peter and Ann, provides a back story for Peter’s immediately ensuing encounter with a curious loner called Jerry in “The Zoo Story.”

Little wonder Albee rechristened the combined plays “At Home at the Zoo.” In the apartment shared by Peter and Ann, wild things are but tenuously pent up. It’s little short of Peter and the wolf.

As the mellow husband and his combustible wife, Tom Amandes and Annabel Armour make a clinically fascinating pair, a once-perfect match now splitting along fault lines of the unconscious. They have come to occupy the same space physically, still protesting an unabated love for one another, but have lost all capacity to communicate.

She speaks but he does not hear. He proclaims his boredom, though he says the ennui lies in the dreadful, albeit highly profitable tomes he must edit. When she does get his attention, she forgets what she wanted to say. Then, as if through free-association, a conversation begins to evolve. Matters of sex quickly come into it. She is frustrated. No, she is not unhappy — most of the time. It’s just that they never…it’s just that he’s…

By way of explaining why he’s, well, the way he is, Peter reveals a long-held secret about himself. He struggles to get it out, and as he falters, Ann begins to urge him on. Or is she egging him on? Her close attention turns to thinly veiled mockery, oiled with vitriol. Like some ill-begot chamber music, this fragmented give-and-spite demands precise interplay between actors, and Amandes and Armour bring it off with chilling effect. Peter has exposed his sensibility and in her leaking fury Ann goes for blood.

Thus the scene is set for “The Zoo Story,” which doesn’t happen at a zoo but in a park near Peter’s apartment where he has found refuge on a particular bench every Sunday afternoon for years. On this afternoon, his space is invaded by the slightly scruffy but loquacious Jerry, who has just walked from the zoo. Jerry wants to talk – about a lot of things, among them his visit to the zoo. Peter is obliged to put down his boring manuscript and listen.

Jerry, in the person of Marc Grapey, may not exactly be a stand-up guy, but he’s a magnetic stand-up comic. Grapey simply takes over the stage and suspends time with a prodigiously funny monologue about the grubby conditions and assorted tenants at the fourth-floor walk-up where Jerry lives. I’d go back to this show just to hear Grapey’s schtick again.

Jerry knows people, and he quickly gets Peter’s number. He tells Peter a story about a foul, evil dog that belongs to his landlady, and how he finally reached a stand-off with the dog: They’ve achieved a relationship almost like love, he says, well not really love but a kind of mutual indifference that allows dog and tenant to co-exist. And by way, Peter has something Jerry wants and intends to have. Here, now, in this park, in this state of nature.

Director Dennis Zacek and designer Mary Griswold work from the same book of clarity. Everything about this production is purposeful, concise, clutter-free. That is equally true of Griswold’s minimalist living room set for “Homelife” and the park backdrop’s suggestive wash of color and two plain benches in “The Zoo Story.”

Yes, two benches. One of them is Peter’s. He has marked it.

Through Oct. 31. www.victorygardens.org. (773) 871-3000

  

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Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.