By Nathaniel Miller   Published Apr 30, 2006 at 5:31 AM

Jonathan West is trading in his old life -- that of the bright lights and pancake makeup -- for a new, no-less-exhausting one as a full-time father to his two daughters, age 3 years and the other less than a month old.

Bialystock & Bloom, the professional theater company that West co-founded, is in the process of vanishing from this world. Its final production, Edward Albee's "The Zoo Story," opened Friday, April 28, and closes May 21.

Things will not end with a sigh, however, or any whining.

The last show, on May 21, will be followed by food, drink, other assorted festivities and a one-time-only feature presentation, "Keep Your Damn Mouth Shut," a 45-minute abridgement of all 40 Bialystock & Bloom productions, with as many original actors and actresses as can be dug from the grave. The added color in the final night, $50 per ticket, is intended to help raise funds so that everyone can be paid when the doors close. Also, old props and costumes will be sold off in the lobby throughout the run of "Zoo Story." West is hoping for $25,000.

"We're getting there, but it's going to be down to the wire," he said in an interview at his office. "We want to take care of everyone."

West credits Bialystock & Bloom's demise to several things: First, a sufficiently woeful inadequacy of audience members. The company's ticket and subscription sales have been in slow decline for the past couple of seasons, and being that Bialystock is one of those rarified companies that prefers to grace its actors and staff with financial compensation, the money is sorely missed.

Second is the media: "The media likes to promote Milwaukee as a great cultural place, but doesn't like to put its coverage behind that," says West.

Third is the "salacious" nature of Bialystock & Bloom's theatrical choices, which West says have both helped and harmed the company. With its reputation for nudity and roller derby and other things audiences weren't seeing elsewhere on stage, Bialystock became a "cult theater type of experience.

"We've always maintained a unique voice," West says. On the other hand, "We've always said, 'You're probably not going to like everything you see, so you might as well stay home for that.' People listen to us a little too often. ... After 11 years, there's still a lot of people who have no idea who we are."

Sure, they could have produced mainstream hits and thereby sucked in all the suckers, but why bother? West compares the lowliness of such tactics to a fad diet: "You can lose a lot of weight but eventually you're going to gain it back."

West rejects any alarmist claims that the conclusion of Bialystock & Bloom signals the death of edgy theater in Milwaukee, or at least an empty, unsightly hole in the theatrical landscape.

"I'd like to say there's going to be a huge void, but we're going out of business because not enough people came to see us," West acknowledges.

Next comes stay-at-home fatherhood. West's wife, Paula Suozzi, is the artistic director of Milwaukee Shakespeare, so the scheduling has been a challenge. Now the only thing left to schedule will be eating and sleeping (for the child, primarily).

But West does not intend to exist solely as a homemaker. He is trying his hand at writing children's books ("foolishly -- it's very difficult"), and he hopes to reenter the world of journalism -- he was once the assignment editor for Milwaukee Footlights -- by writing freelance arts features. He would also like to get back into theater after a year, whether through acting or directing or otherwise.

Meanwhile, Albee's "The Zoo Story" is in full swing. Originally hailed by critics as a play that would "change the face of theater," the one-act piece is described by West as "funny, shocking, explosive and disturbing.

"It's about two guys," he says. "One who's sitting on a bench and one who's not. Ultimately it's a struggle about who's going to end up on the bench."

And with Bialystock & Bloom finishing at the top of its game, as West says, all that's left now is the looking ahead.

"I'm going from the intensely lucrative field of theater to the even more intensely lucrative field of freelance journalism. What an idiot I am."

Edward Albee's "The Zoo Story" runs though May 21 and tickets are $25 ($10 on Tuesdays). A special performance of "Keep Your Damn Mouth Shut," 40 plays in 45 minutes, follows the May 21 show. Call the box office at (414) 291-7800.