When Edward Albee’s one-act two-hander “The Zoo Story” shook up the New York theater scene in 1960, the character of Peter was a blank slate of a man, provoked to animalistic life by a stranger. The playwright revisits the character in his new work, a one-act being presented alongside that seminal play. He envisions Peter’s life before he takes the fateful trip to the park, returning to one of his favorite subjects — marriage. The deft and engaging new play adds depth to a classic.
The sketchy details of Peter’s life of which we get only hints in “Zoo Story” are detailed in “Homelife”: the clean-lined Upper East Side apartment he shares with his wife, a cat, his two daughters, two TVs, two parakeets and two microwaves (both one-acts are set in the present). Albee continues his careerlong exploration of the delicate — and sometimes not-so-delicate — dance between two intelligent, literate married people who clearly love each other and yet feel that something else is needed. Despite their compatibility, respect and even love, the partners lead separate and private lives.
“We should talk,” says Ann (Johanna Day) at the beginning of the play. These words can send tremors through any relationship, but Peter (Frank Wood), intently reading the galleys of a tedious textbook he is publishing, seems unruffled and disconnected at first. Playful banter soon evolves into shared stories of troubled sleep, of Ann’s fantastical thoughts of having her breasts removed (“I was thinking about thinking about it,” she says), his concerns about “a retreating penis,” a traumatic sexual revelation from Peter’s fraternity days and ultimately Ann’s need for some chaos in their well-ordered lives.
As played by Wood, Peter is a man who has led a purposefully kind, precise and pedantic life, “a smooth voyage on a safe ship, a view of porpoises now and then.” But such a careful journey has left him slightly removed from the world, his wife and himself. “Where do you live?” his wife jokes early on. Variations of that question echo through “Homelife” — a work strong enough to stand on its own — and into “The Zoo Story” as well.
Day’s Ann is a woman balancing the blessings of a wished-for existence with her instinctive need to break out of routines. “We love each other too safely,” she says. “Where is the rage?” she asks, yearning for primal astonishment and yet apprehensive about it, too.
At the end of “Homelife,” both gain an understanding of this wake-up call to themselves. As Peter bypasses his dry textbook for some presumably more engaging reading, he sets out for the park in an unusually receptive state of mind.
As “Zoo Story” begins, we see the reading on the bench with a different perspective: Not as a cipher but as an emotional time bomb. Enter Jerry, a mysterious, intense and charismatic loner, engagingly played by Frederick Weller (on Broadway as the mullet-wearing bigot in “Take Me Out”). “Zoo Story” is primarily focused on Jerry, who breaks Peter’s calm on the park bench as benignly as Ann first does in their living room. But knowing Peter’s frame of mind, we understand why he would not flee from this mad fellow; Peter is ready to enter into new experiences, to set sail on a voyage into unchartered waters.
Jeff Cowie designs a stark and sterile living room for “Homelife” and then creates a park environment that is both welcoming and foreboding, helped by Howell Binkley’s subtle lighting shifts. Pam MacKinnon helms deftly, infusing humanity into a sometimes cool and symmetrical world.
“Full circle,” says Ann in “Homelife,” referring to the shocking and circuitous route their conversation takes before it ends where it began. The same could be said for the 76-year-old Albee, whose newest work adds dimensions to the play that launched his career at 30. “Peter and Jerry” offers an opportunity to take in a playwright at a brave beginning as well as in an assured present.