Bill Pullman and Johanna Day in Peter and Jerry
(© Joan Marcus)
Bill Pullman and Johanna Day in Peter and Jerry
(© Joan Marcus)
Edward Albee believes when presumably civilized men and women are scratched -- even lightly -- the brutish animal within leaps through and rules. The now-79-year-old playwright believed as much 49 years ago when he established his reputation with the one-act play, The Zoo Story, wherein the title ultimately refers to the bar-less human zoo we all inhabit. As proof that Albee still resolutely believes it, he's written a prequel to The Zoo Story called Homelife, which is the curtain-raiser for the now-titled Peter and Jerry, now at the Second Stage Theater. Although the ambitious enterprise is flawed, it's a must-see for any number of reasons.

Not the least of them is witnessing a probing playwright review an emerging work only to realize there's more to say on what seemed like a closed subject. For those who need reminding, The Zoo Story takes place in a secluded corner of New York's Central Park where temperate textbook publisher Peter (Bill Pullman) has ambled to do some quiet reading. His serenity is short-lived after he's approached by scruffy ne'er-do-well Jerry (Dallas Roberts), a non-stop talker who insists on unfolding his autobiography to the nearly silent Peter until the persistent gabbing escalates to goading. The upshot of Jerry's unrelenting behavior is that Peter is provoked into an unexpectedly violent act that shatters his seeming equanimity. But it's the ambiguity of Jerry's reaction to the turn of events that raises The Zoo Story above the level of its mere hunter-hunted premise.

Homelife takes place earlier on that fateful Sunday afternoon. Peter is reading on a leather couch when wife Ann (Joanna Day) interrupts him, saying "We should talk." While she eventually forgets what she wants to talk about, the couple nevertheless wanders into some touchy areas. Peter confesses to thinking his penis is "retreating" and it's disturbing him. Ann fesses up to having fears about her inadequacy that their predominantly tranquil conjugal situation can't dispel. More troublingly, Peter describes a long-ago college fraternity party where he was drawn into a disillusioning conflict with a co-ed that ominously foreshadows his eventual confrontation with Jerry. Unfortunately, audiences may have the nagging sense that because Albee has to get Peter to the park for his Jerry rendezvous, he doesn't delve deeply enough into the superficially placid Peter-Ann relationship.

The Zoo Story revival raises a query that undoubtedly irks Albee, but has to be asked. Why doesn't Peter just walk out on Jerry? (It's the same question often asked about Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Why don't Nick and Honey walk out on George and Martha? ) In the Zoo Story stage directions, Albee suggests that Jerry's blocking should create "a hypnotic effect" on Peter. But is that realistic or just unearned dramatic license?

Under Pam MacKinnon's sleek direction and on Neil Patel's immaculate set (where a sharp green is the prevailing hue), the actors are flawless. Pullman -- looking more and more like the late Albee player George Grizzard -- is absolutely right as he grows increasingly hot under the loosened collar Peter wears. Day's ability to make Ann's every offhand utterance spontaneous is awe-inspiring. Furthermore, the always superb Roberts comes as close with his feints and spars to the hypnotic effect requested.

The 2007-2008 season is shaping up as an impromptu Albee retrospective with upcoming revivals of two of his early one-acts and the world premieres of his one-woman Occupant and the full-length Me, Myself and I. Peter and Jerry is a bang-up start to a well-deserved tribute.