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Peter and Jerry

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Bill Pullman and Johanna Day.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

"We should talk." This is no more an auspicious start to an evening of theatre than to an evening of dinner and dancing with a date: Too often, it signals that the fun is over before it's begun. This is, alas, the case with Edward Albee's semi-new play Peter and Jerry, which just opened at Second Stage.

It's not, however, the direct barrage of conversation that sentence initiates that you have to fear. It's the shrapnel. For those three words don't just deflate a single act or a single evening - though they somehow accomplish both - but also take down with them another, perfectly innocent, and considerably better play.

That's The Zoo Story, Albee's trailblazing scorcher of a one-act from 1958. Taken alone, it's a deeply disturbing portrait of anger and self-denial that challenges its two characters, Peter and Jerry, to confront uncomfortable truths about how they see themselves and those around them. But paired with its new curtain-raiser, which kicks off with that perilous proclamation, it loses much of the breadth and depth it already had. All the new piece, titled "Homelife" and originally commissioned by Hartford Stages in 2004, proves is that there are some things we're better off not knowing.

It does not, for example, enrich "The Zoo Story" for Peter (Bill Pullman) to reveal to his wife Ann (Johanna Day) that his circumcision is slowly reversing itself. Or that he once had a drugged-and-drunken fling with a college girl who claimed to like it rough, and paid a price. Or that Ann once pondered cutting off her breasts, or is unsatisfied with Peter's love-making (she wants him to be more animal and less man). And, worse still, she's unswayed by his affections: "I know you love me as you understand it," she says, trying to help.

Bill Pullman and Dallas Roberts.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

She doesn't. What she does is overemphasize the emasculation that's always been implicit when Peter heads into the park and meets a rough-edged transient named Jerry (Dallas Roberts), with whom he forms a shaky and curious bond. But her presence and her manner, of a well-meaning but weary homebody who's only grudgingly accepted her lot in life, goes too far toward answering one of the most compelling questions in "The Zoo Story": whether Peter, like Jerry, is gay. Ann, who describes her marriage as "a smooth voyage on a safe ship," leaves little doubt as to Albee intent.

This can't help but filter through to the second act. Whereas "The Zoo Story" could once be seen as a bloody parable about the closet consuming its own or as a cautionary tale about what can happen when the wrong straights and gays get too close, it's now forced to be a bone-dry abstraction of the concerns of vapid people who willingly made poor choices. This transforms Jerry from a legitimate threat into only a symbol of all Peter's let go wrong in his life, which robs their entire encounter of any sense of danger.

Until Peter and Jerry, "The Zoo Story" has always had plenty, encapsulated in Jerry's central monologue, in which he relates his plans to murder a dog in his tenement rooming house. This speech is still a high point, because of Roberts's game attack of it: He chews on all it says, and especially what it doesn't outwardly say, much as a dog might munch on a bone. But because Albee has unveiled all of Peter's once-hidden qualities and fears, there's no longer anything in him for Jerry to reflect. This makes the speech, and the whole act, an academic exercise rather than a dramatic one.

Director Pam MacKinnon, who also helmed the Hartford Stage premiere, has only compounded troubles with her staging, which amplifies Peter's passivity and Ann's combativeness but justifies neither. Set designer Neil Patel's endless green-skyscape set doesn't help, nor does Day's stifled-yawn of a take on Ann, which makes even more of the problem and less of the solution. ("I'm not a generality, I'm a person," Ann says; Day never proves it.)

Trapped in the center of all this is Pullman, whose natural flair for Albee's sometimes-cumbersome, start-and-stop dialogue can't mask his tendency to behave as though he's always watching himself through a window. This tactic works in the first act as Peter's defense mechanism against Ann's full-frontal emotional assault, but not against Jerry and his more subversive methods of using Peter's own secret arsenal against him. The Peter of the first act and the Peter of the second act are just too different for him to reconcile.

This is not so startling. Albee set out to prove one thing with The Zoo Story 50 years ago, and has approached Peter and Jerry with different (and mostly incompatible) goals in mind. If Albee has mostly adhered to his stated tendency to not rewrite his own completed plays, adding to The Zoo Story (which he has also vaguely reset in the present) seems itself a form alteration, an attempt to wrest it from the position in theatre history it once so viscerally occupied. Lines in "Homelife" like "I remember the night I thought about thinking about it" only stress that the story of Peter has gone from thinking just enough to thinking - and talking - too much.

Peter and Jerry
Through December 30
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street at 8th Avenue
Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes, with one Intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Second Stage Theatre

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