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Monique Vukovic and Jay DiPietro
in Peter and Vandy
(Photo: Eric Maierson
Write down the name Jay DiPietro so you won't forget it. This extremely able newcomer has pulled off a theatrical hat trick, writing, directing, and performing in Peter and Vandy, a serio-comedy about romance, marriage, and estrangement. Don't bother to ask which of his talents are most highly polished; the fact is, DiPietro is skilled at each of them, already at such a high level that others approaching might require oxygen masks. (Since a playwright's choosing to direct and appear in his own work can often result in a headlong race down the road to disaster, a reviewer is tempted to say: "Don't try this at home!")

DiPietro's achievement isn't instantly apparent. As a dramatist, he doesn't come at an audience with bells and whistles. On the contrary. Peter and Vandy is a work of subtleties, of nuances, of observations so modest that, at first, the author may seem to be dealing in clichés. He is, but with an aim to revivify them; he's getting at the complex reasons behind hackneyed behavior. DiPietro knows that people allow themselves to indulge in trite situations and utterly trite language when they are at a loss to act on or express what they are truly thinking and feeling. At 30, he understands -- with a profundity belying his age -- that, all too often, people say what they think others want them to say and, just as often, refuse to say what they know others long to hear.

The twentysomething Peter and Vandy are examples of the two-pronged disconnect DiPietro puts forward in a dozen scenes that follow the fragile couple from their earliest undergraduate meetings through a few stages in their short-lived marriage and on to a difficult break-up. The author lets them go at each other in a dozen scenes marked for the most part by small, not to say petty, talk. DiPietro listens to Peter and Vandy (who probably aren't meant to conjure J. M. Barrie's Peter and Wendy) as they play lovers' games or badger each other about trivial concerns like where to order take-out Chinese and how radically the Cross-Bronx Expressway has altered life in the northern part of New York City.

At almost no juncture do the exchanges between these two run to more than a sentence or two, and almost never can they find the words or the gumption to wield a straightforward, declarative remark. They are twin balls of subtext, no matter if they're glowing with affection or simmering with resentment. The only time they ever raise their voices is during a battle over the proper preparation of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich: In a classic example of husbands and wives seizing a minor incident as a chance to vent deeper anger, Peter upbraids Vandy for using two knives to make the PB&J treat, forcing her to watch him employ one knife. The only speeches that even approach monologues are those in which Peter finally tells Vandy that he is unhappy and she replies in kind. It's during this emotional-temperature swap that DiPietro has Peter make one of those can't-take-it-back comments that audiences gasp at. "You were trying to kill me," he says. "You wanted someone just alive enough to keep you happy. You never wanted me to be great."

DiPietro makes a point of not presenting the 12 generally terse, close-up looks at the pair in chronological order. (In doing so, he uses a device that Harold Pinter in Betrayal and Donald Margulies in Sight Unseen have used before him.) He seems to have a couple of things in mind. One, he wants to have a dramaturgical disconnect correspond to the off-kilter nature of the interpersonal relationship he's describing. Two, the scrambling acts as a reminder that all alliances are marked by up-and-down periods. In an unofficial printed version of the play, DiPietro includes a stage direction introducing the final scene, which shows Peter and Vandy getting a kick out of each other's company, by saying: "It will be unclear when in the relationship the scene takes place."

If there is any flaw in the piece, it has to do with this planned uncertainty. Where the scenes fit is obvious most of the time, but when it isn't, DiPietro may not be triggering the reaction he seeks from the viewers. If reckoning just where a sequence falls throws patrons out of the play, then the playwright is harming himself. (I admit to having been bamboozled a few times and thinking that I needn't be.) The Paradise Theater production has been done on a small budget, and in it the few pieces of furniture set designer Kendell Pigg supplies do heavy change-of-time-and-place duty. Throw pillows and shawls are arranged on the lone sofa, and a few wall hangings are alternated to indicate different interiors as well as different interior decoration, but a bigger budget might go farther towards fixing just where and when Peter and Vandy are meant to be at various points in their bittersweet journey.

As DiPietro directs himself in the role of Peter and Monique Vukovic as Vandy, he's taken care that the playing is like the script. Nothing needs to be added to or deleted from the proceedings, just as the pair needn't revise a single gesture: The tall, lean DiPietro and the short, lean Vukovic do everything right. They look at and away from each other at the proper comfortable or uncomfortable moment. They hesitate over whether to end remarks that begin ominously. They sprawl over the divan and the one club chair, or they retreat into themselves. They show uncertainty as to leaning toward or away from each other, depending on whether Peter and Vandy are fighting their urges or acquiescing to them. Responding to one another as if they were in an actual longterm partnership, DiPietro and Vukovic have mastered the slice-of-life realism that Tom Noonan (whose protégé DiPietro is, and whose theater this is) has made a speciality.

Clever throughout, DiPietro includes numerous throwaway bits that, when noticed, emphasize what an astute miniaturist he is. Shortly after the first scene begins, Peter is putting on a tie before leaving for an interview (though what he or Vandy does for work is never revealed). He tells Vandy, who wants him to change shirts, "Shut up." She replies, "You shut up." Towards the end of the play, in a scene set in Peter's college dorm room -- and, therefore, meant to precede the opener -- Vandy responds to Peter's lording his superior digs over hers with "Shut up." He retorts, "You shut up." In the latter situation, the lines are meant to represent games lovers play; but, placed in the script as they are, the reversed admonitions hammer home the truth that genuine resentment frequently is couched in superficially light-hearted banter. Through a few well-chosen words, DiPietro suggests that Peter's and Vandy's end is contained in their beginning.

Put Jay DiPietro at the top of your list of playwright-director-actors to watch for in the future, and put Peter and Vandy somewhere near the top of the list of plays to catch right now.

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