The Real Animals at a 1950s Zoo: Review of the Edward Albee Play

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, At Home at the Zoo



Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.


A zoo is a place that you visit to admire monkeys, bears and lions and get some fresh air. It is full of smiling parents, laughing children and a menagerie of animals. The zoo in New York’s Central Park, like all of them, is also a perfect place to rest, roam around and read a book.

In the play Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo (Zoo Story), a pair of one act stories, one written by Albee in 1958 and the other in 2004, though, the animal kingdom in New York is not a place where you want to go because some of the people you meet there are more vicious than the animals behind the bars.

That’s what happened to Peter, a laid-back New York publishing executive in Albee’s play, that is getting a sensational revival at the Unicorn Theater in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, part of the Berkshire Theatre group. In this scorching drama about New York in the 1950s, Peter went to the Central Park Zoo to read his book after a rather heated argument with his wife over their sex life. He lounges back, opens the volume, breathes in the fresh air and is ready for a quiet afternoon. Then Jerry, a jumpy, loud, opinionated young man, arrives and interrupts him. A moment later the play plunges into a riveting tale about the two men as they talk about their lives. Jerry’s anger grows deeper and deeper and Peter, trying to somehow calm down the stranger, falls into what appears to be an endless rabbit hole of trouble.

Jerry is obviously a mentally ill man, but his stories about life in his traumatized boarding house, and its oddball tenants, intrigue Peter. As a book editor, he loves stories and Jerry tells him a colorful one, especially the part about Jerry’s attempts to kill a dog who lives there. But then Jerry starts to crowd Peter, demanding information about his life (he jeers at Peter’s dog and two parakeets) and family and wants to know where he lives and what he does for a living. Peter starts to feel very uncomfortable and Jerry seems out of control as the play hurtles towards an emotional explosion.

At Home at the Zoo is a very strong play, highlighted by astonishingly good acting, and calls into question much about our lives. Peter goes for a simple walk in the park and is, at random, confronted by a troubled man he has never met and the encounter leads to danger. He and his wife argue over something silly and it causes him to blurt out his deepest and darkest sexual secrets. What happened to Peter could have happened to any of us.

The story works so well because when Albee wrote it in 1958 Central Park was losing its quaint charm and becoming a dangerous place. So was the upper west side.

Jerry’s boarding house on the west side is across from Central Park between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West. Today, that area, home to Lincoln Center, is a high rent, sophisticated section of New York (brownstones worth millions each). In the late 1950s, though, it was a tawdry, run down area, a poor match to Peter’s upscale neighborhood on the east side (that neighborhood is still a trendy place). Albee selected the neighborhoods of the two men to show the differences and to hint that Jerry’s miserable boarding house and rundown neighborhood made him the man he was.

The drama’s Central Park setting, too, explains a lot of history and serves as the perfect setting for the tale. The purpose of Central Park was to provide a large, airy retreat for New Yorkers who felt hemmed in by the dense and sprawling city that was stifling them in the 1850s, when the population was nearly one million. The city was in terrible physical shape. Garbage was piled in the streets, pollution filled the air, the murder rate was nearly six times what it is today and neighborhoods overflowed with people. It was a town with too many people with nowhere to go. The oversized park, designed by Frederick Olmstead and Charles Vaux, opened in 1873 and was seen as a miracle of urban design around the world. The park gets 42 million visitors a year. Many New Yorkers, just like Peter in the play, just go there in the afternoon to read a book and soak in the trees and ponds. They have no idea of the potential for danger that lurks behind the botanical beauty, and in the late 1950s that was even more of a problem.

The zoo plays a role in the play because Albee is suggesting that the animals are not behind the cages, but in front of them. The Central Park Zoo, a 6.5-acre animal village, was created in 1860 as part of the new Central Park. It was the second zoo in America. It housed several dozen animals, including a bear. In 1934, the zoo was redesigned and renovated as part of a plan by New York City urban planner Robert Moses to revitalize Central Park, which had become rundown and was filled with crime. The 1934 zoo had more buildings, a sea lion pool and artistically fit in better to its park like surroundings. Ordinarily, the zoo, like the park, served as a respite for city dwellers, but from time to time was the scene of trouble. In 2017, as an example, a deranged man climbed to the top of one of the animal cages and stayed there for five hours until police forcibly removed him.

In the late 1950s, too, the police were a problem. The Central Park police were a wing of the NYPD, but did not have as many officers per square mile as the rest of the city, so there were just not enough of them to combat the growing crime wave just starting to develop in that area. The upper west side on the edge of the park and the zoo was a new crime den then, infested with members of new criminal street gangs that warred against each other and roved through Central Park. They were the face of the new “juvenile delinquency” wave of the late '50s. In addition to that, the upper west side was home to racial and ethnic strife as whites, blacks and Hispanics struggled to live together.

In the late '50s, police who were supposed to patrol the park were also busy chasing homosexuals, as Jerry notes in the play, and could not devote sufficient time to curbing the crime wave. All of this left Peter unprotected when he met Jerry. This history blended in nicely with Albee’s alarming story. In fact, there is a scene in the story where Peter yells out hopelessly for the police, who do not come.

Director Eric Hill did a fine job handling the multiple tensions in the drama. He kept the first act moving along well, a real chore since it is a pretty tepid part of the play. The acting in the play is wonderful. All three performers do admirable work. David Adkins is a sturdy Peter who really personifies the average guy. Tara Franklin does a fine job as his sex starved and combative wife. It is Joey Collins, as the deranged Jerry, who steals the play. He gives one of the best performances I have ever seen as the mystery man who emerges from nowhere to create a major confrontation with an unsuspecting bench-sitter. Collins goes through the full range of emotions as Jerry and you become more and more entranced with him, and afraid of him, as the story develops.

At Home at the Zoo was a smash hit as just Zoo Story fifty years ago and it is just as electrifying as two one acts today.

It was a warning, too, that in any zoo, in any city, in any era, we are all random victims for the shadows of evil in the world.

PRODUCTION: Sets: Randall Parsons, Costumes: David Murin, Lighting: Solomon Weisbard, Sound: J Hagenbuckle. The play is directed by Eric Hill. It runs through August 26.



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