4 June 2004: Albee, Peter and Jerry

Hartford Stage. Act I: Homelife; Act II; The Zoo Story. Directed by Paul MacKinnon. World première of Homelife as the first act of a two-act play as titled above.

It was a gutsy thing for Albee to write a play that in effect had him competing, decades after the fact, with one of his own best, and earliest, efforts. The Zoo Story is one of the truly brilliant, seminal plays of the twentieth-century American theatre — a play about an ordinary, decent, civilized upper-middle-class man who has an experience that will change his life forever. The world will never be the same for Peter, after he has held the knife, frozen in fear, that Jerry has given him and then has run on, killing himself, and thanking Peter as he dies. I think Albee probably wanted his audience to have, in theatrical terms, the same kind of experience — a play that might raise their consciousness and change their lives. And I think he succeeded in doing that.

Of course, the theatrical landscape, along with the social and moral land­scape, of 2004 is vastly different from what it was — what they were — when Albee wrote this play, in the late 1950s. Actually, the play seems a little dated in the near absolute distinction it makes between life as lived on the upper East side and life as lived in derelict West-side squalor. Not that such distinctions don’t still exist, but that Peter seems something too much of a cliché. In his program comment Albee admits that the play was written more from Jerry’s point of view, and that writing a prequel (my term) about Peter’s life in the high rent district was a way of evening the score.

It was, of course, also a way of making a viable evening’s entertainment out of something that, by itself, runs hardly an hour and so gives only scant value for money to a subscription audience that would require at least ninety minutes (to judge from the length that passes for an evening’s entertainment in the theatre these days). Albee’s choice was an intelligent and productive one, adding a female character, Peter’s wife, Ann, who is presented as a decent, loving woman and is happy with Peter and with her life as the mother of their two girls but who also yearns for something more — perhaps more “animal” in their lovemaking. In a burst of frankness she tells Peter that he is wonderful at lovemaking but lousy at fucking, and so introducing the central theme of the evening, the conflict between civilization with its compromised living and sheer animality, the theme of disconnection and attenuated life that remains central as we see Peter leave his apartment and head out for a quiet Sunday afternoon of reading in Central Park. In a sense, Albee had already found the best title for the two plays, “the zoo story” — the story of what happens when you cage animals. The “Story of Jerry and the Dog” is a more specific narrative in the same genre, and its moral — that extraordinary efforts at connection are required in this world, but that what is gained “is loss” — is Albee’s way of dramatizing the oppressive détente that conventional life and conventional values imposes on genuine human nature.

I was glad to see this pairing of plays, giving us the interesting spec­tacle of one character, Peter, common to both, with the other two, Ann and Jerry, proper to the separate plays, and separate worlds, they each inhabit. All three characters were very well played by competent actors, Frank Wood being especially convincing as Peter. But Homelife, despite Albee’s suggestion in the program note, stands up only barely as an independent piece. It serves to tell us things we already know about Peter’s life from our previous acquaintance with The Zoo Story, though it adds a flesh-and-blood wife and a slightly surprising encounter they have over Ann’s puzzled attempt to sort out a kind of existential fear and longing that she, probably rightly, senses can never be satisfied or allayed. As she described her un-ease, I thought of the two old friends, an aging couple, who descend on the occupants of the house in Albee’s A Delicate Balance and request to stay with them, simply because they are afraid to go home.

Albee is never dull, and his dialogue often has at once an unnaturalness and a sharp edge that can bring one up short and command attention. But the language of The Zoo Story rises to greater heights than this, as it does also in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and leaves Homelife well behind. Together, the two parts of Peter and Jerry remain a somewhat anomalous conjunction of competence and brilliance that leaves me wanting all of Albee’s writing to be as good as The Zoo Story. A perfectly unreasonable request, but there you are.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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