It doesn’t take much to reveal people’s animal side and lack of humanity — a bit of conversation will do.
As proof, there’s Signature’s topflight take on “Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo,” a pairing of one-acts that combines the author’s 1959 classic, “The Zoo Story,” with its 2004 prequel “Homelife.”
Upper East Side textbook publisher Peter (Robert Sean Leonard) figures prominently in each.
“We should talk,” Peter’s wife Ann (Katie Finneran) announces at the start of “Homelife.”
Seated in their living room and buried in a book, he doesn’t hear her. Then he does. And they do.
And how. The brutal, brain-churning chat covers prophylactic mastectomies, a “retreating” circumcision, parakeets, sex so rough it unintentionally draws blood, conflicting desires between life being “a smooth voyage on a safe ship” and spicing up blah lives with “a little madness.”
But that’s just talk.
The madness gets real in “The Zoo Story.” It walks and talks in the person of lonely and desperate Jerry (Paul Sparks), who encounters Peter in Central Park moments after the one-on-one with Ann.
Jerry asks, “Do you mind if we talk?” Peter doesn’t — which could strain credulity, especially because Jerry gets so odd so fast. But life is strange. It’s not a safe ship.
As Jerry unloads about his lowly life, he gets increasingly unhinged, which culminates in a lurid doozy of a tale about a dog.
In Albee’s universe, connection — between spouses, or between strangers — is fraught or worse.
Eleven years after its Off-Broadway debut under the umbrella title “Peter and Jerry,” “Homelife” still sounds like characters spouting an author’s ideas about cruelty and isolation — and not real talk. “The Zoo Story” still manages to unsettle.
Three winning performances show off each work to its best advantage. Leonard nails Peter’s mild-mannered calm and the storm beneath it. Sparks is spiky as required as Jerry. Finneran brings so much smarts, humor, vulnerability and a subtle jagged edge to Ann that you can’t take eyes or ears off of her.
Lila Neugebauer’s direction cannily underscores the unnerving closeness — and more often distance — between people.
Another key to the show’s success is its abstract scenic design by Andrew Lieberman featuring a white box of a room with gnarly gray scratches climbing up from the bottom of the walls.
The pencil lines aternately summon Cy Twombly and the Peanuts’ Pigpen. Either way, the inherent unstable and chaotic vibe feels right.
Through March 18 at Signature Center