Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


The cynic's rule of thumb is that messing with the classics inevitably mars them: prequels, remakes, spin-offs, all part of the system's blatant, artless grab for cash. So what was this cynic's take on mega-famous playwright Edward Albee hanging a new beginning onto his half-century-old primal scream, The Zoo Story? The Abreact's Michigan premiere of Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo blends the daringly droll with the psychotically unpredictable for an aggressive night of conversation.

In the new first act, entitled Homelife, Peter (Dave Davies) is at home, reading, when he's approached by his wife, Ann (Anne Marie Damman), who announces that they need to talk. In the second act, Peter has relocated to the park, still reading, when he's approached by the transient Jerry (Charles Reynolds), who claims he just wants to talk with someone. The identical frameworks are supported by a mostly open set that encourages duplicated stage pictures and movements, which directors Adam Barnowski and Andrea Smith use liberally to merge the stories of these mirror-opposite relationships into a cohesive whole.

The drastically different tones depend on the linchpin character of Peter, and Davies follows through with a curious timidity that takes different forms in these different circumstances. With his wife of many years, he is clearly brought out of his comfort zone by certain intimate topics, and his matter-of-fact delivery serves the circuitous pacing of the scene. With an off-kilter stranger, he offers information generously but becomes slightly more brittle, at times smiling through condescension, and the whole dynamic changes. Davies's fine and funny work provides a solid foundation for the play as a whole, but Peter is ever the vanilla in this Neapolitan. In the coolly prim and bored domestic Ann, Damman proves a splendid partner for Peter; as they talk openly about every aspect of their marriage, possibly for the first time, she starts hitting notes of salaciousness that are both thrilling and humorous. Reynolds's Jerry is possessed of abundant energy and rapt focus, delicately spinning the extremely challenging "THE STORY OF JERRY AND THE DOG" to a captivated audience. Albee's dense text is handled well by Barnowski, Smith, and the actors, playing into the stilted feel of Homelife and enjoying a controlled burn in The Zoo Story.

Scenic design by Michelle Becker solves the problem of the play's dual nature, and the problem of no traditional backstage area, by using reversible flats. But its ultimate achievement is one single branch, placed high out of the way on a very in-the-way feature of the Abreact space. Yes, they dressed the downstage pillar to blend in with the park, and the exquisite 3D effect (and unspoken screw you, pillar!) is a perfect touch that wouldn't have been possible on a conventional stage.

Viewers like this cynic may be impatient at first to get to the screeching climax of The Zoo Story, but the tale that precedes it is interesting and engaging enough that the production never feels like it's biding its time. Moreover, the further exploration of Peter's character puts a different spin on what can become a Jerry-centric second act, and the parallels between the stories gave me a broad basis for comparison and reflection after the fact. For theater-goers who like to ponder themes and staging choices, Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo is good during and just gets better after.


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