Frank Wood and Frederick Weller in Peter and Jerry(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Frank Wood and Frederick Weller in Peter and Jerry
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
We're all entitled to an occasional lapse in judgment. Edward Albee's decision to add an opening act -- a foreplay, if you will -- to his 1958 classic The Zoo Story, to move the action of the play to the present day, and to envision the amalgam as a full-length work titled Peter and Jerry is a misstep. Appending a prefatory glimpse of the mild-mannered Peter conversing with his wife before he sets out for that fateful afternoon in the park, doesn't "open up" the original play; rather, it shuts it down.

Peter, played in this Hartford Stage production with more than customary namby-pambyness by Frank Wood (a Tony Award winner for Side Man), is presented in the original version of The Zoo Story as a cipher -- a fill-in-the-blanks, well-off, comfortably married man vis à vis the prowling, predatory Jerry. For the play's unexpectedly violent denoument to have full dramatic effect, that's how he ought to remain. The fresh revelation that, in his youth, Peter had a brief brush with S&M is in no way useful to the audience and, in fact, does the play and the character a disservice. Such heavy foreshadowing vitiates the power of what's now Act II.

Not that the first act -- which has its own subtitle, "Homelife" -- is all that riveting. Peter and Ann, the latter portrayed by Johanna Day with asexual, soccer-mom archness, read like a declawed George and Martha. They quibble mildly over etymology and other nonessentials before getting down to the agenda indicated by Ann's opening line: that scary, clichéd phrase "We should talk." Her beef is that Peter is a dud in bed or, as she puts it more directly, "lousy at fucking" -- though she praises his prowess when it comes to "making love." (It remains a mystery why Ann has chosen this particular day, two decades into their marriage, to air her dissatisfaction.)

Clearly though, this a conceptual blueprint of a marriage, far removed from the real thing. "Where's the rage?" Ann needles Peter politely: "Don't we ever hate one another?" As anyone who has ever cohabited for more than a minute can attest, and as the author of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? surely knows, animosity is the very warp of love's weft; the two are inextricable. To suggest that these two have enjoyed utter connubial bliss in every other respect is sheer fantasy -- as farfetched as the notion that a textbook publisher's $200,000 salary (updated from the original $30K) would support an Upper East Side duplex.

Realism laced with absurdity is The Zoo Story's strong suit -- at least when the play is well done, which is not the case here. Concatenations of the new backstory aside (is it now the wife's fault that Peter heads out into the world off-kilter?), it's entirely believable that a bourgeois gentilhomme of Peter's stripe would be temporarily entertained by a farouche young man (Frederick Weller) -- provided that said interloper exerted at least some faint suggestion of animal magnetism and didn't seem a scuzzy bore. (Could there be an undercurrent of sexual attraction between the men? All the better, but that subtext has evidently been sidelined in the play's reconception.)

As Jerry whines on about the pathetic and/or revolting denizens of his tenement boardinghouse, Weller exhibits some weird body language, repeatedly assuming a surfboarder's stance. (He sometimes spreads his legs so wide that you half-expect him to descend into a split). For the most part, Jerry's disquisitions are delivered not to Peter, whom he's presumably trying to hold in thrall, but directly toward the audience -- often over Peter's head as Peter maintains a bland, vaguely smiling expression. Perhaps director Pam McKinnon calculated that this was the best way for the actors' faces to be seen by the highest possible percentage of onlookers, given the deep thrust of the stage, but the two men spend so little time interacting that the ending of the play comes out of nowhere.

Albee has made it a point of pride that he never revises his completed works. It might be best if he would hereafter resolve never to rethink them, either. The add-on to The Zoo Story is a big minus.