Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo is a strange beast: a classic of American absurdist theater, the 1959 one-act The Zoo Story, to which its eminent author more than 40 years later appended a prequel. In the 1970s, Albee wrote a play called The Man Who Had Three Arms, whose embittered protagonist achieved celebrity when an extra limb sprouted from his back and was then disdained when the appendage withered. In At Home at the Zoo, which is in its Boston premiere by Zeitgeist Stage Company (at the BCA Plaza through May 28), it’s as if The Zoo Story had sprouted a whole extra torso — one that both adds to its themes of human isolation and beastliness and detracts from the arbitrariness that is a touchstone of its absurdity.
In the new arrangement, The Zoo Story is preceded by Homelife, which looks in on the largely reactive character of Peter, from the earlier play, just before he takes up residence on a Central Park bench. There he will be accosted and regaled by the lonely, unstable Jerry, with his memorable tale of the primal love-hate struggle waged between himself and a craven canine. Homelife finds reticent textbook publisher Peter pulled into an uncomfortable conversation by his equally civilized wife, Ann, who is chafing at the “smooth voyage on a safe ship” the two have charted. She thinks now that she’d like some sexual chop, even some rage — which leads Peter to a disturbing confession that resonates into The Zoo Story.
The two plays are quite different in tone, the newer one carefully crafted, the more famous one an act of bravura that doesn’t take a lot of time thinking about itself. Still, when I first saw the pairing, then called Peter and Jerry, in its world premiere by Hartford Stage, I thought the stiltedly performed Homelife too arch for its own good, with wordplay and marital revelation given about equal weight. David J. Miller’s quieter staging, with its honest but reserved performances by Peter Brown and Christine Power, is more disarming. But Miller, sharing the directorial reins with Naeemah A. White-Peppers, has chosen to cast himself in the role of logorrheic loner Jerry in The Zoo Story, and he isn’t up to it. Miller embraces the “weariness” Albee attributes to the character and adds a sort of hangdog aggression. Still, there’s slackness where the bristle ought to be. Even at 29, Albee could supply all the verbal acuity you need. But when it comes to body language, Miller’s a man of few words.