“Symmetry!” says Peter in “Homelife,” the first-act addition now paired with Edward Albee’s groundbreaking 1958 one-act, “The Zoo Story.” “God, I love symmetry.” The man who has two daughters, two cats, two parrots and two microwaves now also has two interlopers rupturing the neat surface of his complacent existence. To borrow from another title in the playwright’s canon, “Peter and Jerry” might have been called “An Indelicate Balance.” Whether the more recent work completes, enhances or is superfluous to the still-searing original will be a matter of some division, but it illuminates Peter, making a passive figure into one no less pained in his isolation than Jerry.
Directed with a firm grasp of the difficult, precise rhythms of Albee’s dialogue by Pam MacKinnon, who helmed the 2004 premiere of the expanded work at Hartford Stage, the Second Stage production shows the playwright at his caustic best. Focused direction is matched by elegant design work, with Neil Patel’s spare set using a vivid green base both for the first-act living room and the second act in Central Park, both lit with piercing clarity by Kevin Adams.
The production also is distinguished by another bracing collaboration between Albee and superb stage actor Bill Pullman — seen on Broadway in “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” — here bringing excruciatingly real discomfort to Peter. Equally compelling is the return of Dallas Roberts, whose unpredictable intensity made him mesmerizing in Caryl Churchill’s “A Number” and allows his Jerry to inch under the skin of both Peter and the audience with an insistence that remains unsettling despite the passing of 50 years.
Written at age 30, Albee’s breakthrough play, “The Zoo Story,” has lost none of its originality. Its extended confrontation between two lonely men — one trapped in his own safe, civilized world, the other a “permanent transient,” unhinged by solitude — still addresses human failings connected to repressed feelings and the absence of communication with piercing acuity, economy and savage wit.
Highlighted by one of the most brilliant sustained monologues in modern theater, in which Jerry recounts his history with a vicious dog and the failure of both kindness and cruelty in man and beast’s exploration of a possible connection, the work has bark and bite.
The only sign of it being in any way dated is in the geographical divide between the two characters, Peter’s Upper East Side apartment being a world away from Jerry’s seedy rooming house, which now seems an unlikely residence in a West Side long since gentrified.
Despite the two-character play being his most frequently performed work, Albee has said he felt nagged by the imbalance between three-dimensional Jerry and the more circumspect Peter. He wrote “Homelife” to expose the layers beneath the taciturn surface, revealing Peter in the context of his arid marriage to Ann (Johanna Day). A challenging exchange that breaks a seeming pattern of unchallenging co-existence, their conversation hastens Peter’s exit to go and read in the park, the scene of his fateful encounter with Jerry.
“We should talk,” is Ann’s loaded opening line. Establishing a variation on a familiar dynamic between married couples in Albee’s work, Ann is whip-smart, with a slightly brittle edge and a propensity for needling questions and rejoinders from which there’s no escape. That much is clear despite Peter’s attempt to remain buried in the galleys of a tedious textbook he’s publishing.
What’s also clear is that the inherent tension between these opposites doesn’t preclude them loving each other and having maintained a functioning relationship. “A smooth voyage on a safe ship,” is how Peter interpreted their unspoken pact. “A pleasant journey, all the way through.”
Why Ann chooses this particular moment to question that stasis is unclear but in ways both circuitous and direct, she lets her husband know that gentle, thoughtful, honest and good can get tired. She wants “something a little less deserving, maybe…” though she’s not sure what.
Albee’s dialogue here is clipped and composed, making the couple’s exchanges initially stiff. But MacKinnon and the two actors display such a fine ear for the staccato music that it soon starts to sound like natural speech.
Day’s Ann is bored, blunt and dryly sarcastic yet never unsympathetic. Her persistence in invading Peter’s determined impermeability is amusing, and she gradually reveals that Ann’s hunger for something more dynamic in the marriage is as much about dissatisfaction with herself as with Peter. Her reflections on her insomniac excursions, the likelihood of her having an affair, or the unmotivated possibility of having her breasts removed are delivered with clinical detachment but reveal the melancholia of passionlessness.
Reticent as he is, Peter also discloses some wistful considerations regarding his “retreating” penis. Apologizing for his lack of wildness, he recounts a disturbing sexual episode from his college days. (The hints of sexual revulsion running through both acts appear to reinforce the frequently voiced theories of homosexual undercurrents in “The Zoo Story.”) Pullman is consistently affecting as he winces both at his wife’s and his own admissions; it’s a marvelous performance that exposes the character’s rawness via quiet insights, not showy displays.
Written much later in the playwright’s career, “Homelife” doesn’t have the bracing anger or terseness of “The Zoo Story,” but it does continue to resonate throughout the second act.
From the moment when Peter’s reading again is interrupted, this time by Jerry, Albee establishes this was not just circumstance but an encounter made inevitable by Peter’s need to be jolted out of inertia and imprisoning civility into animalistic rage. Knowing more about him than we ever did before, it becomes even more evident that his life can never return to what it was.