Saturday 22 October 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Zoo Story

It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 42: Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story (1958)

The Zoo Story has a killer hook! Played over one scene, it sees Peter sat reading peacefully on a Central Park bench approached by another man (Jerry). Jerry tells Peter that he’s been to the zoo and that he will probably read about it in the paper the next day if he doesn’t see it on the news before then.

A different blogger might reference Beckett as a way in to discuss The Zoo Story, Albee’s first play which was first performed in Germany in 1959. But how about the 2016 animated film The Secret Life of Pets? Watching the film last week (it’s diverting but not on the same par as Pixar films, with most of the good bits shown in the trailers), its depiction of a New York of two halves made me think about Albee’s striking debut. In both the play and the film, New York is a fast and busy city with few precious places of solace and calm. One of those places is the home and the other is Central Park. For Peter in Albee’s play, a spot in a quiet corner of the park offers him a chance to read and reflect on a Sunday afternoon, a chance to get some ‘me’ time away from his editorial job and big city house full of his family and plenty of pets. Nearby is the zoo full of balloon sellers and families enjoying a sunny afternoon. It’s New York not too dissimilar from the one seen through the lens of an animated family film such as The Secret Life of Pets. But in that film, we also see a (albeit exaggerated) darker side of New York which includes street gang bunnies and sewers full of crocodiles. It is the ominous of New York underneath the touristy, tawdry surface in which Albee is interested especially regarding the character of Jerry.

Jerry lives in a room of a boarding house in a rundown area of New York. It may only be a few blocks away from Peter’s Manhattan townhouse but is culturally a world apart. He, and his neighbours, lives in a state of poverty where his frisky landlady’s flirtations and her dog’s growls run like clockwork each day. Jerry is a curious character (to say the least) but he is also lonely and is perhaps associated more with the Central Park more associated with yesteryear full of bums and criminals. He constantly undermines and questions the buttoned-down sheen of Peter’s life, something which Albee explored further by writing a companion play, Homelife, about Peter and his wife in 2004 which payed as a double bill with The Zoo Story. As the play spins towards its climax, we see the two worlds collide, with Jerry’s unhinged nature changing Peter’s life forever.

Albee’s writing is perceptive, funny and quirky. There’s also a surreal edge and bit of a self-conscious aspect of The Zoo Story, things which are brought out more in his second play The Sandbox. With a flurry of Albee productions in the West End next year including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, I would say that The Zoo Story is also well worthy of a revival.

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