Katie Finneran and Robert Sean Leonard in 'At Home at the Zoo'
Katie Finneran and Robert Sean Leonard in 'At Home at the Zoo' © Joan Marcus

Much of Central Park has a wild, rugged appearance. But that effect comes from careful landscaping. Peter, the protagonist of Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo, has the opposite disposition. His aura of stolid respectability conceals a streak of inner perversity, which erupts into a chaotic frenzy during an afternoon in the “Lungs of New York”.

That sinister tale might sound like a predictable riff on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But Albee’s writing is so lean and nuanced that there are no lurches between madness and civilisation. Monstrousness here blends seamlessly into the fabric of normality. And Robert Sean Leonard’s taut performance turns Peter into a dense psychological enigma, whose actions and motives seem inscrutable even to himself.

For most of the play, he barely moves. Seated first in a wing chair, then on a park bench, Peter is confronted in Act One by his exuberantly frustrated wife Ann (a vampish yet forlorn Katie Finneran) and then in Act Two by Jerry, a silver-tongued oddball, played with a volatile blend of lunacy and vulnerability by Paul Sparks. Both treat Peter like a conversational punching-bag as Ann goads her husband for being too strait-laced while Jerry pricks his bourgeois self-esteem. No one wins these brittle duels. Yet, though Peter is far from unflappable, he seems to emerge with his warped sense of self intact, whereas Ann and Jerry wear themselves out in neurotic circumlocution.

The first skirmish unfolds in an atmosphere of mid-life domestic tension that recalls Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But the alcoholic fireworks of Albee’s best-known play are fuelled by a conventional marital problem — childlessness. A deeper, more mysterious sense of existential malaise haunts Zoo, whose second act was first performed as a standalone work in 1959.

The original clash between Peter and Jerry subtly explores class conflict in a city where rich and poor still live within walking distance of the same park, formerly crime-ridden and now as safe as Switzerland. The expanded version, first performed in 2004, broadens that psychodrama into a universal parable of man’s struggle to restrain his animal nature. Lila Neugebauer’s stripped-down staging suggests how fragile such bonds can be. And her Zoo injects an electrifying dose of terror into the ersatz wilderness at the heart of New York.

★★★★★

To March 18, signaturetheatre.org

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