Peter and Jerry, Second Stage, New York

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The Zoo Story, Edward Albee’s first play, seems stuck in the late-Eisenhower era: its main character, Peter, smokes a pipe, wears a cardigan, and probably knows more about Perry Como than Elvis Presley. As presented as the second half of Peter and Jerry, however, at Second Stage, The Zoo Story proves it has lost little of its ability to sting the sensibilities of an audience for whom Como is probably little more than a pop-culture footnote.

Paired with Homelife, written six years ago, The Zoo Story makes unsettling intuitions explicit. By the time this one-act had its New York premiere, in 1960, uncovering animal fears beneath human proprieties was hardly unknown as a theatrical enterprise: Strindberg, for one, had made a sub-career of it.

Albee’s gift was to wrap the theme in an American skin – and, since the climactic confrontation of Zoo Story pits Peter against a talkative outsider type (Jerry) in Central Park, to blanket it as well with a peculiarly Manhattan texture.

Peter and Jerry’s colloquy has lost little of its power, even though by updating the topical references, Albee has made the new Zoo Story occasionally silly.

Homelife presents more of the Albee that theatergoers have come to know over the past decade in Broadway revivals of A Delicate Balance and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: the married couple as society’s basic unit of loneliness.

Homelife happens in the flat Peter inhabits with his wife, Ann, who is given quiet fervour by Johanna Day. Day has an eerily good ability to listen: during Peter’s speeches, including one monologue about an intense sexual encounter, I found myself watching her more than I did her husband.

Peter in both parts is played by Bill Pullman, whose erotically unconventional husband in Albee’s The Goat several years ago brought the actor out of the ghetto of onscreen thankless husbands and into the theatre’s first rank of dramatic protagonists. Dallas Roberts’s Jerry is a shade overdone.

Compared with the orchestral effects achieved by Albee’s finest full-length works, this double bill, cleanly staged by Pam MacKinnon, is much more of a chamber programme.

It also serves as the kick-off to an unofficial season of Albee’s work in the New York area, timed to coincide with his 80th birthday next March.

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