Coming to Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater August 13–15 is Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo, which adds a first act, Homelife, to his famous one-act play The Zoo Story.
Directed by Nathan Winkelstein and starring Sophie von Haselberg as Ann in the first act, the staged reading follows her publishing executive husband Peter to Central Park where he meets the enigmatic Jerry and shares a deep, meaningful moment of connection with this stranger. These two complete strangers will be played by partners onstage and off, Ryan Spahn (Daniel’s Husband, Moscow x6, Gloria) and Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Torch Song, Younger).
We hopped on a Zoom call with the New York City couple to learn more about the show’s themes, the Guild Hall production’s fascinating evolution and how being an acting couple has helped them find consistent work throughout the pandemic.
Dan’s Papers: Is this your first production back on the stage since the pandemic began?
Michael Urie: Yeah, kind of. I just finished a project that was onstage for an audience, but it was filmed, so they were all in the audience, but it was not for the purpose of an audience, if that makes sense. It was a production that was mounted to film for streaming, so it wasn’t quite the same as this will be, but it was definitely a thrill to be in front of people again and to have an audience and feel that after 16 months of doing things on camera, some TV and movie stuff and lots and lots of Zoom stuff, it was really thrilling to have people again.
And I think this play, now that we’re doing it inside for real people—this is a play with a capital P, it’s like a real piece of theater. Albee is no joke. And I think it’s really exciting to come back with such an incredible piece of theater that I’ve known about for as long as I’ve known about theater. This is the kind of thing that once you say, “I want to be an actor,” people are like, “Look at Zoo Story,” because it’s something to really sink your teeth into. It’s only two people, it’s so easy to work on, but a challenge—it’s easy to pick up and work on, but it’s really hard, and now here I am, probably 25 years after the first time I read it, and there are still things that I don’t get and that I need to figure out before we do it for people.
How does weathering the pandemic together influence your take or perspective on The Zoo Story’s themes of isolation and loneliness?
Ryan Spahn: We haven’t actually discussed that, but it must be deeply informing it, because I think, especially the need to get outside and just sit somewhere that isn’t in your house is such a huge part of—now that we’ve pieced the two plays together, there’s a part one and part two to Zoo Story. Part one takes place in the home, and then it ends with a character, my character (Peter), saying he needs to go to the park, which means he just needs to get out for no reason other than to get some fresh air and just to be in a world that he’s not feeling isolated and trapped in, like he does in the house, and I think we all have gone through that. So I think the play, now that we’ve pieced them together, actually sort of highlights what we’ve all been through.
We hadn’t originally intended to do both parts, that was a newer development because the Albee estate had allowed us to do part two in isolation, and now that things have progressed with COVID, we had to go back to doing it as a two-part thing.
Urie: And we were originally going to do it outside. The whole plan sort of came about before things were allowed to happen inside, so we were originally going to do it on a bench outside somewhere, and that wouldn’t really make sense for the first part of the play. … But it’s amazing how the plays inform each other, even though Albee wrote Homelife like 30, 40 years later, the plays really do speak to one another in a very interesting way.
I’m really excited that we’re doing both parts. The idea of doing just one part was because we wanted to make theater, and it was the only way we could figure out how to make theater. Nathan Winkelstein, who came up with this idea, very cleverly said, “Here are two actors who are already quarantined together, who can safely work together. Here’s a play that can happen outside, distanced and in the open air, and we can get this done.” Now as things have changed and progressed, and we’re able to move inside, it speaks to the moment in a very different way, but it’s very cool.
Michael, what insights do you have about your character that you hope to explore in this production?
Urie: Well, I’ve lived in New York for like 20 years now, and these characters, these people who you encounter who are eccentric, who are very talkative, who clearly have lives that are very different than my own, who have demons and darkness that they go home to or that they come from—they’re all over the place. We in New York, we all meet them, and I feel like in some ways, the longer I’m here, the more I relate to them. … What’s interesting about looking at this play after the 16 months is that I relate to anybody who stays in New York, because I’ve always been in New York since I moved here 20 years ago. I’ve stayed.
And we even stayed through the pandemic when so many people left, and I think that there is something about people who come to New York, which is not an easy place to live, stay in New York, which is not an easy decision to make, certainly not financially, but emotionally too, I think that there is something relatable about all of us, and even though I do not live in the kind of situation he (Jerry) lives in, there is something relatable to him, for me, I get wandering around New York, looking for yourself. I get that New York can be both the only place you want to live and this place that does nothing but pummel you and tear you down. …
Ryan, same question to you: What makes your character tick; what are you looking to explore?
Spahn: Well, we talked about this last night at rehearsal, and it’s something that I relate to a lot. I play a person who benefits from being around people who take up more space in life than he does, and Peter takes up less space in life than the people he shares scenes with, and I think Ryan the actor, the real person, definitely does that. I think I surround myself with people who (are like that), in my personal life and in my friendship life. Not Michael the character, but Michael as a person, he’s a more energetic writer. … And I just understand that.
I understand somebody who feels like they take up space by way of sharing it with somebody else, and it isn’t until they realize that that’s not actually what they’re doing, and they’re challenged—like my character is challenged to fill space with anger or animalistic tendencies that I don’t feel like I have because I’ve pushed them down, because I’ve allowed other people to have them instead of me, and I think that he learns how to have that through this play, and I personally understand that, particularly in the wake of being locked inside for as long as we were.
How many productions would you say you’ve done together, and do you typically practice lines and rehearse at home or try to keep work outside of the home?
Spahn: We’ve done a movie together, a web series together. We did a short together. We did a play at Martha’s Vineyard, we did 75 things in quarantine, and now we’re doing this.
Urie: And Hamlet! It’s always a little different, but when we work together, we do—and even when we’re not working together—we do try to keep the homelife sacred.
Spahn: I love that you just called it “homelife,” because that’s the name of part one.
Urie: Exactly! But we do try to turn off work, and what I mean is when we’re working or separate, there’s a point where it’s like—I know that I’ve said to Ryan at times, “I don’t want to talk about work anymore,” even though something crazy happened to me at rehearsal or on set today, I just want to turn it off. And can we just talk about something else for a little while? And I know Ryan’s done the same. And certainly when we’ve worked together, we made a movie together that Ryan wrote and I directed and we were both in, and that was all-encompassing for probably two months of our lives, and that was sort of all we did. And that was one thing.
Spahn: Our whole apartment was a production office, and the producer was from LA living in a closet that we put a bed in, in our apartment.
Urie: Yeah, that was just something special, and it was very exciting—we were making a movie, there was this big crew and people were coming and going all the time, and that was a moment where we did let it completely encompass our lives. And I imagine, at some point, this will encompass our lives, too, once Ryan is finished with his project, and I just got back from a project, but once it’s more focused just on At Home at the Zoo, it’ll probably encompass our lives. We’ll talk about it at night after rehearsal, we’ll run through lines together outside of rehearsal, but we can’t just be working all the time. We do protect our life at home, and we are careful about that even when we are working together, there are times when, wouldn’t you say, Ryan, we just decide, “OK, phones down, brains off. Let’s watch HGTV or whatever.”
Spahn: Well, we have a dog, which is very helpful, and often but not often enough, but we do often say, “OK, let’s go on a long walk with her and not bring our phones, which is hard to do. We also take a lot of time to make our home as relaxing as possible, by the way in which we decorate it. We take a lot of care in the things that we have in our home, so that when we do come home, we can fully relax and let go of whatever we might be working on either together or apart.
How does acting opposite your partner differ from other actors?
Spahn: Yeah, I would say it’s different. It’s definitely different. I don’t know about you, Michael, but you just know the person—we know each other so well that part of rehearsal is getting into a place where it feels like it’s really happening, and I feel like, for people who know each other really well, you can feel when you’re acting and you can tell when they’re acting, and so I think that it’s just something you have to clock because it’s a part of rehearsal.
You have to figure it out, and so there’s going to be things that might feel false, if you want to call it that, because you’re figuring it out. And I think I can be sensitive sometimes when I feel like I’m not where I want to be, either emotionally or whatever it is, but when you’re with somebody you’re very close to, that can be more vulnerable than when it’s a complete stranger and they have nothing to compare it against.
Michael, what do you consider the most rewarding or enjoyable aspect of acting opposite Ryan?
Urie: I think he’s very good, and I trust him as an actor, so I know that it’s rare that you get to work with somebody who you know so well. Sometimes it’s really exciting to work with someone you don’t know at all, especially if there’s any kind of “getting to know you” in the material. But doing this, we’re playing complete strangers. In Hamlet, we played old friends. In our movie, we played ourselves, so we played a couple.
We did this play by Stephen Belber called Tape, where we were old friends who know each other really, really well. It’s really interesting to play complete strangers, but on the flip side of what Ryan was saying about wanting to feel authentic and always be authentic, because I know when I’m acting, and I know when he’s acting, I also feel the freedom to really go for it because I trust him, and I know that he trusts me. I’m more willing to swing for the fences and fall on my face with him, which is really freeing because sometimes when you work with somebody you don’t know and you’re like, “I’ve got be good every time so that they like me and think I’m good and trust me,” but sometimes you have to swing for the fences and make a mistake in order to learn. I find that easier with Ryan than with a new actor or a stranger.
And Ryan, would you like to share the most rewarding aspect of acting with Michael?
Spahn: It’s the best; he’s fantastic. He’s so alive and full, and it’s thrilling, and we have such a good time doing it. And then when it’s over, we can immediately talk about what we want to talk about. He’s sort of the opposite of what I said before, because we know each other, there’s no edit with what we can talk about. We can talk about whatever we need to right away, and so you get through rehearsal faster, almost, so you get more done in a shorter amount of time because you don’t have to dance around not knowing somebody, so we just have such a great time.
Does being an acting couple offer any unique benefits?
Urie: I do think we were really lucky the last 16 months to have each other, not just because we weren’t alone in quarantine, because we were able to work together and support each other. At the beginning of the pandemic, we put on the one-man play Buyer and Cellar, which I did on Broadway and all over the place, and we did it in our living room and streamed it for Broadway.com. That wouldn’t have been possible if I lived alone, or it would have been very different if I had lived alone and didn’t have somebody like Ryan—we’ve made movies together, we had created content together. So suddenly thinking about turning our apartment into a movie studio or a streaming live TV studio was an easy transition. And then we put on a little play together as actors that was streamed live for MCC in our apartment, and then we acted opposite each other in Zoom readings. And what was the other one?
Spahn: I made my movie, and there was a voice-over part that I needed it, and I could just walk to the other side of the house and be like, “Michael, can you record all of these lines? Because I need to edit them into a movie right now.”
Urie: It was just very easy to collaborate; it was very easy to support one another. Oh, and the other thing was The Bite! We were cast together in a TV show that was shot for Spectrum TV called The Bite with Audra McDonald, and it was done remotely. Everyone did their parts remotely, so they sent us all of this equipment, we set it all up in our apartment, and we shot a TV show together in our apartment. We were not only able to support each other through the pandemic emotionally, we were able to support each other creatively, professionally, and because we were both actors and we lived together and we were quarantined together, we got work.
And this (The Zoo Story) is an example of that, too. Now it’s a little different than when we first came up with it, but this was a pandemic project that we booked because we’re together. So that’s really great, and that was true before the pandemic, but it definitely helped us during the pandemic being two actors who live together and are quarantined together was good for us.
Guild Hall is located at 158 Main Street, East Hampton. For tickets to At Home at the Zoo, visit guildhall.org.