Edward Albee’s Peter and Jerry is a wholly successful evening at the Second Stage, a reminder—if any were needed—that Mr. Albee’s soul-sick inmates at the zoo still have the power to disturb us greatly.
Under the assured direction of Pam MacKinnon, and excellently acted by Bill Pullman, Johanna Day and Dallas Roberts, Peter and Jerry combines Mr. Albee’s seminal, one-act Zoo Story (1958) with Homelife, the delicious and troubling one-act prequel he wrote to accompany it in 2003.
The renowned playwright has said that he was tempted to tell us more about his reticent, 40-something Peter, the pipe-smoking, anonymous man on a Central Park bench in Zoo Story who encounters a “permanent transient” named Jerry. We all know who Jerry is when we meet him in the play: He tells us about himself unsparingly. But who exactly is his innocent victim, Peter?
Any major playwright who returns to his early work, as Mr. Albee has done here, is living dangerously. (Arthur Koestler once described such nostalgia lethally as like a dog returning to its own vomit.) The older, legendary Edward Albee (now 79) isn’t the same man, we assume, as the furious, unknown playwright of a half-century ago. How would the two Albees get along? Surprisingly well, as it happens, considering they’ve just met. Mr. Albee may have changed over the years, but his preoccupations remain the same.
The pain and difficulty of love or connection; the emotional battlegrounds of divided souls; the pull of unconscious sexual desires; the American tragedy of appearances; desperation and loss—these are the defining themes of his plays. (He can also be pretty funny.)
The first words of Homelife—which opens the double-bill—are: “We should talk.” They’re spoken by Peter’s wife, and though they’re delivered matter-of-factly by a woman described clinically in the script as “pleasant-looking, unexceptional,” her mundane words could easily be threatening. Peter, a successful publisher of textbooks, doesn’t hear, however. He’s distracted, reading a book.
The now famous first words of Zoo Story, on the other hand, could signal terror:
“I’ve been to the zoo,” Jerry tells Peter on the bench. But Peter doesn’t notice. (He’s reading the same book). “I said, I’ve been to the zoo. MISTER! I’VE BEEN TO THE ZOO!”
HOMELIFE IS A domestic chamber piece about Peter (played by Bill Pullman, whose fine performance in both plays is perfectly pitched). Peter’s sort of happy marriage to Ann is a relationship of mutual compromise and “no jagged edges,” with a comforting, symmetrical family of two children, two cats and two parakeets. (Neil Patel’s modern, minimalist setting on New York’s East Side is appropriately neat and bloodless.) But as we’ve come to expect from the dramatist who wrote a play about a happily married man who falls wildly in love with a barnyard animal (The Goat, 2002), all isn’t quite right in Peter’s orderly household.
Mr. Albee has given his restrained hero what must surely be one of the most unexpected lines he’s ever written:
“I think my circumcision is going away.”
Peter points this out to his stunned wife as if he’s absent-mindedly mislaid his fountain pen. And Ann (Johanna Day) laughs disbelievingly, like us. But Peter’s in earnest. It turns out that his circumcision is receding. But then, his edgier wife can tell him that he’s good at making love “but lousy at fucking”—and intend no apparent harm! Peter flares briefly—but no more than that. There’s no anger in him. “Be kind,” he says later to Ann gently, or in quiet supplication to himself.
Peter’s someone who became solidly, contentedly middle-aged before his time—a decent sort, pleasant, well-meaning, bemused and repressed. He’s incapable of irrationality or a show of passion, whereas Ann wants to put some chaos into their ordered lives. As they chat about ordinary and taboo things (voluntary mastectomy is one of her subjects), she tells him that she longs to have wild, rough sex for its own sake. She knows he hasn’t got it in him.
She’s surprised and curious to learn from Peter that he was once turned on by horribly abusing a girl during a hazing session at college. In his shame, he’s become a conventional, domesticated animal.
An undercurrent of mild unspoken menace emerges in Homelife, though it ends cheerfully in harmless whimsy. Its emotional subtext foreshadows Zoo Story’s convulsive finale in which Jerry provokes meek, harmless Peter to kill him.
Mr. Albee’s perceptive biographer, Mel Gussow, pointed out that the novice playwright found his own voice with the exhilarating Zoo Story. It’s a play that would influence an entire generation of young, emerging American playwrights in the 1960’s (and inaugurated the genre of “the park bench play”). To see it today is to realize that it’s still a shattering experience. I’ll burn my bridges and claim that in all of modern U.S. drama, I can think of no more ferocious statement about relationships than Jerry’s staggering monologue about a killer dog he describes as “malevolence with an erection.”
Dallas Roberts is riveting as Jerry, the lost, directionless soul who’s just been to the zoo and lives in a one-room dump on the Upper West Side. He wants to talk, wants a conversation. He’s like an animal who keeps flinging itself at the bars of his cage.
“The Story of Jerry and the Dog!”—as he calls it, as if announcing a grotesque sideshow for Peter’s instruction—is the long and winding story of to how he came to tame his loathed landlady’s vile dog with poisoned hamburgers, medium rare. “All right. The dog, I think I told you, is a black monster of a beast: an oversized head, tiny, tiny ears and eyes … bloodshot, infected, maybe; and a body you can see the ribs through the skin.”
It attacked him, going to bite his leg off, from the first day he moved in. “Now animals don’t take to me like St. Francis had birds hanging off him all the time. What I mean is: Animals are indifferent to me … like people,” he adds, smiling lightly. “But this dog wasn’t indifferent.” So Jerry decided: “First, I’ll kill the dog with kindness, and if that doesn’t work … I’ll kill him.”
Peter is listening wincingly to all this—anxious to oblige the talkative stranger who’s joined him uninvited at the bench. Jerry then tells how he poisoned the dog: “AND IT CAME TO PASS THAT THE BEAST WAS DEATHLY ILL.” He said to the stricken landlady that he’d pray for the dog, but she didn’t believe him. “I told her, and there is so much truth here, that I didn’t want the dog to die. I didn’t, and not just because I’ve poisoned him. I’m afraid that I must tell you I wanted the dog to live so that I could see what our new relationship might come to.”
The dog recovered, and they reached a compromise, a truce between them. He even got to love the
dog. “Don’t you see?” Jerry pleads with Peter. “A person has to have some way of dealing with SOMETHING.” And in the howling and wreckage of life, he has learned that “the teaching emotion” is a combination of kindness and cruelty, and that the dog and he “neither love nor hurt because we do not try to reach each other.”
Perhaps Jerry is a crazed martyr; perhaps in the last primal moments, he’s simply content to be out of it like a wounded animal who has to be put down. “I’ll tell you something now,” he tells the horrified Peter with his dying breath. “You’re not really a vegetable, you’re an animal. You’re an animal, too. But you’d better hurry now, Peter. Hurry, you’d better go. …”
Zoo Story left me feeling shocked and elated, and yet I’m uncertain whether we truly need its prequel—glad though I was to see it. Having visited Zoo Story again, it seems to me that we’ve always known who Mr. Albee’s Peter is, more or less.