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A CurtainUp Review
Peter and Jerry

With Additional Thoughts by Elyse Sommer
dallas robertsBill Pullman
Dallas Roberts and Bill Pullman (Photo: Joan Marcus)

It only took a little under fifty years for Edward Albee to come up with the first act of Peter and Jerry. But what's the rush, we may wryly ask? After all, the second act, known famously as The Zoo Story, has already been widely accepted as a complete one-act play since it first appeared at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1960, following its premiere in 1958 in Berlin, Germany.

The added first act is called Homelife and it's a doozy. Under the sublimely subtle direction of Pam Mackinnon, it craftily provides us with the reasons that prompt Peter (Bill Pulham), after a humorously unsettling conversation with his wife Ann (Johanna Day), to take his fateful excursion to Central Park. The Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winner has not exactly been idle between Act 1 and Act II. He's found time in between to write some of the most lauded and seminal plays in American dramatic literature, including Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe (1961), Tiny Alice (1964), A Delicate Balance (1966), All Over (1971) and Seascape (1974). Despite a lean and possibly underappreciated period, recent years have found Albee in a self-refreshed mode. Certainly critics and public alike have been appreciably responsive to Three Tall Women (1991) and The Play About the Baby (1997), The Goat, or Who is Sylvia (2000) (2001), giving further proof that Albee, who will turn 80 on March 12, 2008, remains a master playwright.

The answer to the question of whether or not Homelife by itself places it in the top tier is, for all practical purposes, a moot point. It is not meant to stand alone. As a non-essential, but meaningfully enhanced appendage to what is acknowledged as a contemporary classic, it is a very pleasurable and entertaining bit of exposition. It certainly helps us to understand Peter and his response to Jerry (Dallas Roberts), the unhinged stranger who confronts him in Act II.

As in The Zoo Story, Peter, a self-satisfied marginally motivated publisher of text books is unwittingly coerced into a virtually one-sided discourse that becomes violent with Jerry, an unsavory, talkative loner. Homelife finds Peter, provoked by Ann into an unnerving and unsettling conversation that serves to agitate and stir up questions regarding their conjugal bliss. "We have to talk,"says Ann who disrupts Peter as he sits on the sofa reading a particularly boring textbook. Albee's dialogue finds its level both on what is implied as much as what is actually spoken. The psychological propellants that drive Ann's chatter about cutting off her breasts to avoid the prospect of cancer are clearly meant to make Peter more responsive to her —as is her telling him about her mother's need to have an affair. Peter's reaction is first quizzical then conciliatory, as he shares with her his concerns ("my circumcision is going away" and "my penis is retracting a little.")/

Johanna Day, who originated her role at Hartford Stage, is marvelous at affecting Ann's subtly insinuated carnal drive while also trying not to make Peter feel inadequate. She concurs that their marriage has been "a smooth voyage on a safe ship", but adds that she wouldn't mind "a little disorder, chaos, madness" in their relationship. "You're good at making love, but lousy at fucking, " she says, giving Peter his opportunity to tell her about a certain sex party in college in all its unfortunate details. What is precisely addressed between Peter and Ann is not prurient but rather a human being's latent and repressed animal nature, an aspect of the psyche that craves violence even as it might surface among happily married upper middle class people living in a brownstone in New York's East 70s. Bill Pullman, whose performance in The Goat earned him accolades and a Drama Desk nomination, may look comfortable in his casual clothes, but his conflicted and uncomfortable reaction to a conversation that he clearly would have liked to avoid is palpable and, as we see in Act II, is capable of reaching a boiling point.

There is no point in reconsidering the brilliance or the traumatizing effect that Act II (The Zoo Story) has on the viewer, except that Dallas Roberts gives the kind of emotionally erratic and ultimately chilling performance as Jerry that will give you pause the next time you think about sitting with a good book on a bench in an isolated part of the park. Despite the play having been written in the late 1950's one cannot help but think about the recent news report that 25% of all the returning soldiers from Iraq find themselves homeless, despairing and resentful of those fat cats who have profited from the war, and may be just desperate enough to seek out someone to take them out of their misery.

Designer Neil Patel has wisely chosen to lodge the play in an abstracted space defined by a large green unadorned backdrop. There is need for only a plain sofa, a chair and a coffee table in Act I and two benches and a garbage can in Act II. Other technical credits are in keeping with the general excellence of plays produced by Second Stage Theater.

In addition to this New York premiere of Homelife (the Hartford Stage world premiere dates back to June, 2004), Princeton's McCarter Theater will present the world premiere of Me, Myself and I, Albee's newest play next Spring. The Signature Theater will present Occupant, another play that has yet to be seen in New York, while The Cherry Lane Theater will present revivals of The Sandbox and The American Dream. It's all part of what has been officially designated as The Albee Season.

Additional Thoughts by Elyse Sommer

When Albee's The Zoo Story debuted half a century ago it was paired with Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape." It became an enduring "hit" and it was frequently produces as part of an evening of two one-acts. Its most frequent partner was another Albee play, The American Dream, and occasionally The Sand Box (both of which, as Simon Saltzman noted, are being paired and revived under Albee's direction at the Cherry Lane Theater).

Six years ago, the Williamstown Theater Festival presented a very short run of a double bill that featured "The Zoo Story" and Harold Pinter's "The Dumbwaiter" which premiered around the same time. That double bill struck me as a very organic match since its spiritual matchmaker was clearly Samuel Beckett, the man in whose footsteps both Albee and Pinter have walked. Like Beckett's Waiting For Godot, both The Zoo Story and Dumb Waiter revolve around two characters whose often hilariously funny conversations and behavior hint at mysterious forces and surface realism and coexists with expressionistic, metaphorically pungent drama.

Albee has long recognized Beckett as the literary father of his often enigmatic and dark plays and has been quoted as declaring "We're all Beckett's children." Four years ago, New Yorkers had a chance to experience another Beckett/Albee partnership (Beckett-Albee review) . Unlike the Zoo Story/Krapp's Last Tape coupling, the now well-established Albee's part of the evening, Counting the Ways, was more or less a postscript and tribute to Beckett —an unusually playful piece to top off three much denser Beckett monologues.

Homelife is quite another story. It's is not just another short play to team up with The Zoo Story, but an integral part of what is now a full-fledged two-act play. As a program note by Albee explains this belated transformation of one-act into two-act play: "It nagged me just a bit that it {The Zoo Story} seemed to be not quite a two-character play—Jerry being so much longer a role— but more a one-and-a-half-character one." When he finally decided to do something about adding a first act that would flesh out Peter and make for "a better balance" the result was Homelife.

While I can't imagine Beckett ever attempting either a prequel or coda for Estragon and Vladimir, Albee's addition works quite well —.and mind you, Homelife should viewed as an addition and not a revision since, despite the title change to Peter and Jerry and a reference to novelist Stephen King, The Zoo Story has not been rewritten.

The added first act is more like the above mentioned Counting the Ways. Its amusing dialogue has Albee borrowing from one his favorite replies to queries as to what one of his plays is about ("about 2 hours") by having Peter answer Ann's what's it about query regarding the "boring but important" textbook his firm is publishing with "about 700 pages." Naturally, Albee being Albee, the Cowardesque marital conversation turns darker and thus serves as a parallel for the Peter and Jerry encounter that follows. Those parallels are a bit too symmetrical and at times threaten to rob the second act of its abstract, Beckettian power. Fortunately, the cast is so terrific, that this threat is never realized so that Homelife is at once engaging and disturbing, and The Zoo Story is as dark and menacing as ever.

On re-reading The Zoo Story both before seeing it at Williamstown and, now at Second Stage, it also once more makes a case for an Albee's essay ("Why Read Plays?" in Zoetrope') in which he urged readers to experience a play as literature as well as performance, The Zoo Story, with or without a prequel, does indeed read extremely well and vividly evokes appearance and body language. To prove my point, herewith the opening dialogue:
JERRY: I've been to the zoo. [PETER doesn't notice.] I said, I've been to the zoo. MISTER, I'VE BEEN TO THE ZOO!
PETER: Hm? . . . What? . . . I'm sorry, were you talking to me?
JERRY: I went to the zoo, and then I walked until I came here. Have I been walking north?
PETER: [puzzled] North? Why. . . I . . . I think so. Let me see.
JERRY: [pointing past the audience] Is that Fifth avenue?
PETER: Why ya; yes, it is.
JERRY: And what is that cross street there; that one, to the right?
PETER: That? Oh, that's Seventy-fourth Street.
JERRY: And the zoo is around Sixty-fifth Street; so, I've been walking north.
PETER: [anxious to get back to his reading] Yes; it would seem so.
JERRY: Good old north.
PETER: [lightly, by reflex] Ha, ha.
JERRY: [after a slight pause] But not due north.
PETER: I. . . well, no, not due north; but, we ... call it north. It's northerly.
JERRY: [watches as PETER, anxious to dismiss him, prepares his pipe] Well, boy you're not going to get lung cancer, are you?
PETER: [looks up, a little annoyed, then smiles] No, sir. Not from this.
JERRY: No, sir. What you'll probably get is cancer of the mouth, and then you'll have to wear one of those things Freud wore after they took one whole side of his jaw away, What do they call those things ?
PETER: [uncomfortable] A prosthesis?
JERRY: The very thing! A prosthesis. You're an educated man, aren't you ? Are you a doctor ?
PETER: Oh, no; no. I read about it somewhere: Time magazine, I think. [He turns to his book.]
JERRY: Well, Time magazine isn't for blockheads.
PETER: No, I suppose not.

By Edward Albee
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Act One: Homecoming with Johanna Day (Ann) and Bill Pullman (Peter)
Act Two: The Zoo Story with Bill Pullman (Peter) and Dallas Roberts (Jerry).
Scenic design: Neil Patel
Costume design:Teresa Squire
Lighting design: Kevin Adams.
Running Time: 2 hours including intermission
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street,
From 10/19/07; opening 11/11/07. Closing 12/30/07.
Tues at 7 PM, Wed to Sat at 8 PM, Wed and Sat at 2 PM, and Sunat 3 PM.
Tickets: $70.
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman on 11/10/07


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