HARTFORD -- Edward Albee's "The Zoo Story" marked a turning point in the American theater. If the plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams grew out of the more naturalistic strain of late Eugene O'Neill, Albee's play came into being on the crest of the more confrontational 1960s zeitgeist.
As Peter, an upstanding, middle-class gentleman goes to Central Park to read he is engaged in conversation by Jerry, an earthy, far less materialistic fellow desperate to make real contact with someone or something. If you read it as a contented representative of the affluent Eisenhower era being confronted by a depressive figure representing the rising tide of beats and hippies wanting more from life you would not be the first.
Albee has said in recent interviews that he was always satisfied with Jerry, but that Peter did not seem fully drawn, so when the adventurous Hartford Stage asked him to write another one-act to accompany "The Zoo Story," his first publicly performed play, he figured why not go back and flesh out Peter some more.
And he has succeeded -- perhaps he has succeeded a little too well. Forty-six years later we have "Peter and Jerry" -- the first act being "
Albee was right about Peter. Now he is much more than a stick figure, he is indeed fully formed. It's Jerry who now seems sketchy. The worry was that the new first act would seem superfluous; instead it's almost as if "The Zoo Story" is the superfluous act.
Almost, but not quite. We still need "The Zoo Story" to complete the arc from civilization to its discontents. Peter's journey, as we like to say these days, is not complete without Jerry.
As a playwright, Albee has always taken great delight in rattling the bourgeoise's cage and "Peter and Jerry" reminds you that he has been remarkably consistent in both style and content through nearly half a century. We frequently start out, as in "A Delicate Balance" and "The Goat," as if we're in a comedy by Noel Coward (whom Albee has greatly admired), move into "Curb Your Enthusiasm" territory (Peter thinks his circumcision is going away), and arrive at a place more disruptive to a sense of personal and social equilibrium.
"Homelife" begins with the familiar sight of a husband reading a book, apparently heedless to his wife, who wants to talk. They eventually do and their conversation moves from banality to imbalance, particularly for Peter. Frank Wood brings the same strong stage presence he did to "Side Man" on Broadway a few years ago. Here he adopts a demeanor somewhere between Dick Cavett and Truman Capote. He's more eager to deflect Ann's increasingly introspective turn with a glib witticism or a nod to convention.
Johanna Day has been memorable in supporting roles recently -- "How I Learned to Drive" and "Proof" -- but here she really sparkles as Ann, sweetly telling Peter how much she loves him and how good everything is, particularly the sex, but luminously yearning for something more. Can't he, just once, let go?
Day is a joy to watch as she pleads not to settle for the creature comforts of their 74th Street enclave. He thinks a life without jagged edges is the way to go, she throws him by saying "Nothing is ultimately sufficient. Not you. Not us. Not me." And she would love to see him acknowledge the animal inside him, even if she'd like it back in its cage before tearing her apart. Albee's dialogue grows funnier and feistier throughout the act, so by the time Peter goes off to the zoo the audience is primed for Jerry to test Peter's animal side even further.
But does he? Jerry is poor and he hasn't made the compromises in life that Peter has. He yearns for real contact with a person and if not a person then at least his landlady's dog, who lunges for him every time he comes into the house.
As Peter has grown in sympathy, however, Jerry has receded, particularly as he is played in this production. Frederick Weller could use some of the danger he brought to the hick pitcher in "Take Me Out." He seems so harmless here that his more menacing behavior toward the end of the play comes out of nowhere.
Albee, in the 1999 production at the Alley Theatre in Houston, moved the story from the '60s to a more contemporary time. As in that production, J.P. Marquand has been replaced by Stephen King and Peter is now making a cool $200,000. I'm not sure that the updating was a great idea to begin with, but since that's the version Albee is using in Hartford, it would have been more fitting for Jerry to be played in a way that feels more dangerous and disruptive. Perhaps someone like Danny Hoch, the hip-hop performance artist, would have brought a more visceral threat to the middle-class psyche. (And if we're in contemporary times instead of the late '50s, owning a television is hardly a sign of middle-class life.)
There is the additional problem of Albee writing in a voice that is fully developed compared to "The Zoo Story," where he was just learning to roar.
Still, it will be interesting to see what people who are coming to "Peter and Jerry" without being familiar with "The Zoo Story" will make of the play. "The Zoo Story" still has profound things to say about identity, comfort, and how to live a life in unchartered territory and Albee has plotted "Homelife" accordingly. Ann's sexual musings neatly play into Jerry's riff on pornography. When you're young, he says, porno becomes a substitute for the real thing and when you're older sex becomes a substitute for fantasies.
Aside from the reservations about Weller's portrayal, the production is first-rate. Pam MacKinnon seductively coaxes the dialogue and action out of Wood and Day while Jeff Cowie's apartment in Manhattan and section of Central Park are just right.
On balance, "Peter and Jerry" with a stonger Peter and weaker Jerry is a better play than "The Zoo Story." But as in life, revisiting the past proves to be leveraging more of a delicate balance than one might originally think.
Ed Siegel can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.