The Zoo Story
The Zoo Story is a one-act play by American playwright Edward Albee. His first play, it was written in 1958 and completed in just three weeks. The play explores themes of isolation, loneliness, miscommunication as anathematization, social disparity and dehumanization in a materialistic world. Today, professional theatre companies can produce "The Zoo Story" either as a part of "Edward Albee's at Home at the Zoo" (originally titled "Peter and Jerry"), or as a standalone play. Its prequel, "Homelife" written in 2004, however, can only be produced as a part of "Edward Albee's at Home at the Zoo".
Rejected by New York producers, the play premiered in West Berlin at the Schiller Theater Werkstatt on 28 September 1959 in a double bill with the German premiere of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape.
The play premiered in the United States Off-Broadway in a production by Theatre 1960 at the Provincetown Playhouse on January 14, 1960 and closed on May 21, 1961. The play was paired with Krapp's Last Tape. Directed by Milton Katselas, the cast was William Daniels (Peter) and George Maharis (Jerry). who was replaced by Peter Mark Richman (then known as Mark Richman) after a week. Daniels and Richman performed to rave reviews for more than nine months. The play won the 1960 Obie Award for Distinguished Play and Distinguished Performance, William Daniels. (Michael Karlan replaced Mark Richman for 6 weeks when Richman left the show to shoot a film.)
This one-act play concerns two characters, Peter and Jerry, who meet on a park bench in New York City's Central Park. Peter is a wealthy publishing executive with a wife, two daughters, two cats, and two parakeets. Jerry is an isolated and disheartened man, desperate to have a meaningful conversation with another human being. He intrudes on Peter’s peaceful state by interrogating him and forcing him to listen to stories about his life and the reason behind his visit to the zoo. The action is linear, unfolding in front of the audience in “real time”. The elements of ironic humor and unrelenting dramatic suspense are brought to a climax when Jerry brings his victim down to his own savage level.
Eventually, Peter has had enough of his strange companion and tries to leave. Jerry begins pushing Peter off the bench and challenges him to fight for his territory. Unexpectedly, Jerry pulls a knife on Peter, and then drops it as initiative for Peter to grab. When Peter holds the knife defensively, Jerry charges him and impales himself on the knife. Bleeding on the park bench, Jerry finishes his zoo story by bringing it into the immediate present: "Could I have planned all this. No... no, I couldn't have. But I think I did." Horrified, Peter runs away from Jerry, whose dying words, "Oh...my...God", are a combination of scornful mimicry and supplication.
Albee wrote a prequel to The Zoo Story, titled Homelife. Homelife is written as the first act, with The Zoo Story as the second act, in a new play called Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo (initially titled Peter & Jerry). Homelife was first read publicly at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference.
Christopher Wallenberg notes of The Zoo Story: "Over the years, he’d [Albee] always had a nagging feeling that something was missing from the piece’s was [sic] an encounter between two very different men on a Central Park bench." Albee explained: "The Zoo Story is a good play. It's a play that I'm very happy I wrote. But it's a play with one and a half characters. Jerry is a fully developed, three-dimensional character. But Peter is a backboard. He’s not fully developed. Peter had to be more fleshed out."
In addition to discussions about his adding an act and a character nearly 50 years after writing the original play, the theater community was taken aback by Albee's announcement that he would no longer permit The Zoo Story to be produced by professional theater companies. He would only allow the two-act play. The move has raised controversy within the theater community. Only non-professional and college theaters may produce The Zoo Story in its original version. Albee defended the change and the addition of a female character, Peter's wife. Albee noted the play was his to do with as he wanted.
The play, titled Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo played at American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco in June 2009, with Anthony Fusco as Peter, René Augesen as his wife Ann, and Manoel Felciano as Jerry.
As of December 2009 it played in its Seattle premiere at Theater Schmeater.
At Home at the Zoo had its premiere Pittsburgh production and was the inaugural show for the Ghostlight Theatre Troupe in Gibsonia, PA in July 2010. It starred Rich Kenzie as Peter, Mary Romeo as Ann and Ned Johnstone as Jerry and was directed by Gabe Herlinger.
At Home at the Zoo will open on February 23, 2018 at New York’s The Signature Theater starring Katie Finneran, Robert Sean Leonard and Paul Sparks.
In popular culture
The Zoo Story is referenced in the film Grumpy Old Men.
The Zoo Story is a central element in the novel "Qiṣṣat hadīqat al-ḥayawān" (The zoo story), by Moroccan playwright and novelist Yūsuf Fāḍil, published Dār al-Fanak, Casablanca, 2008, which deals with the milieu of actors and playwrights in 1970s Morocco and Moroccans in Paris. The two main characters of the novel, Al-Sīmū and Rašīd, want to perform a Moroccan version of the play, but their copy of Albee's work is missing essential pages.
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- “Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo Begins Off-Broadway” Playbill, January 30, 2018