Edward Albee's Peter and Jerry
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 17, 2007
Edward Albee, perhaps somewhat ingenuously, makes the claim in a program note that The Zoo Story had always been a two act play ("I just hadn't told myself," he writes). With his Peter and Jerry, he expands his famous one-act from nearly 50 years ago into a longer piece; the result offers solid proof, if any were needed, that a work of art should not be tampered with. The earlier seminal work is, if anything, diminished by this addition.
The Zoo Story, as you may know, is about a chance meeting in Central Park between a prosperous book publisher and a very disturbed, possibly unbalanced young man. Jerry is the young man, and the play is almost all him talking—first, getting Peter's attention, and then spilling a long harsh story about his relationship with his landlady's "monster" of a dog. Jerry's monologue, or rant, is loaded with subtext, the exact nature of which is revealed in the final moments of the play. His entire modus operandi has to do with getting Peter to fully engage with him; and we know very little about Peter except for what Jerry deduces will press his buttons and spur him to action. Peter is, in fact, the protagonist of the play, though it's hard to guess how the events of the play will ultimately affect him. Jerry, meanwhile, is antagonist to the nth degree, and the piece is a tour de force for the actor playing him (in this case, Dallas Roberts).
Do we need more than this to feel the jolt that Albee wanted us to feel back in 1958: an alarm, a wake-up call, something to pull us out of our Eisenhower (Bush?) era fear and anxiety and complacency, back to the real world of human suffering and relationships?
No, we don't.
And indeed in "Homelife," the new first act of Peter and Jerry that Albee has written as companion piece to The Zoo Story, very little useful is accomplished. We meet Peter's wife, Ann, and we see him and her during the hour just preceding the events of The Zoo Story. They're sitting in their East Side apartment living room, talking in the articulate, loquacious way that Albee couples talk, unpeeling secrets that have for whatever reason remained hidden heretofore in a 15-year marriage. The focus—oddly for such cerebral people—is on the physical: Peter bemoans his unasked-for circumcision (which he thinks might be reversing, whatever that means), and Ann speculates about having her breasts removed pre-emptively to avert the possibility of cancer. Then Peter lets loose a confession whose callousness sort-of matches Jerry's in Act Two, I suppose; it's about sex, and franker than practically anything I can think of in the Albee canon, and jarringly gratuitous for that. It's not clear that this particular revelation will change anything in Peter and Ann's life. And, once Jerry arrives on the scene in Act Two (and Ann is gone), it's easily forgotten.
In short, nothing in "Homelife" ultimately matters to The Zoo Story; Albee understood that when he wrote The Zoo Story as a one-act between two strangers (to each other and to the audience!). It would be better to pair The Zoo Story with another early Albee work like The Sandbox or The American Dream and let us see that again then to pad it with this. For "Homelife" actually does take something away from The Zoo Story—by putting the raw formative work side-by-side with a mature polished one, we see all the ways Albee's writing has grown and improved, and all the flaws that are inevitable in a first play.
Second Stage Theatre has given Peter and Jerry a first-class production, featuring spare but effective design by Neil Patel (sets), Theresa Squire (costumes), and Kevin Adams (lighting), under the unobtrusive direction of Pam 1 Roberts steals the show, as he must, as Jerry; nevertheless, he may be playing the role more frantically than he needs to. Johanna Day is quite satisfying as Ann. Bill Pullman, in a thankless and underwritten role in both halves of the evening, seems to be channeling the late George Grizzard as Peter; he might give a better account of the character if he kept his work here less mannered.