Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Peter and Jerry by Edward Albee
Second Stage Theater, NYC

A fascinating night at the theater was enhanced by a complete disagreement about the play at hand.

Tonight, two friends and I attended Albee's "Peter and Jerry" at Second Stage. The first act, "Homelife" (2004), a new prequel written to "The Zoo Story" (1959), was willfully mundane. I have to think the playwright, who can so devastatingly plum the depths of sordid familial strife, restrained his hand in "Homelife." Albee's blinding verbal pyrotechnics were hardly in view. How far we are from the extremes of "The Goat or Who is Sylvia?" In "Homelife" all the angst is muted in domestic pastels. The reoccurring props of the wife's dish towel, and the husband's "boring book" act as sponges, absorbing even the couple's most troubling personal revelations in limp familiarity. It was rather a relief knowing that when the husband decides to get some fresh air in the park, he will enter the world of "The Zoo Story." We needed some action.

Intermission's funniest line came from one of my friends, who, surveying the packed house of hip mid-week theatergoers, said, "There are too many communists here tonight."

The Baroque excesses of "The Zoo Story" thrilled me; they always have. I remember reading the play, mouth agape, in my hometown public library when I was 16. I read it again and again. Tonight, its resplendent bleakness (and the virtuoso performance of Dallas Roberts as the crazed Jerry) left me in tears. So it came as a shock when one of my companions, who had never seen the play, said he hated "The Zoo Story."

For me, the two characters that eventually mortally fight over one park bench, are but warring sides of one man unable to reconcile his dual Freudian natures. My friend disliked the use of the poor man's suffering as a utilitarian instrument for the enlightenment of the upper class. For him, it was as if the crazy man's suffering only had meaning—his pathos only a purpose—if observed and reacted to by the bourgeoisie. In his reading of the play, the poor man's plight is exploited for the learning of the rich. His reaction, literal and totally visceral, resulted for him in an awful stench.

The dual (duel?) catharsis of the play, which resulted in my tears and his recoiling, is difficult to reconcile. It brought to mind a dinner party last winter at the home of an art collector and an artist. In their living room, which is full of stunning art from antiquity to the contemporary, hangs an important work of Cy Twombly. That night, one guest said he liked every work of art in the room, save the Twombly, which he thought utter rubbish. Though he said he liked all the other works, the only one he spoke about all night was the one he disliked. And he spoke and spoke and spoke about it, in great detail, focused on every perceived flaw, every artistic failure. Our sophisticated host listened, his head cocked in characteristic interest, and finally he said that he loved the work and though he was sorry his guest didn't share his opinion, he was glad to have a work of art that elicited such a strong response.

Tonight after the play, there was a friendly quarrel on the corner of 43rd and Eighth Avenue. There is a thrill in knowing that one might just be dead wrong, and sublimity in knowing one will never know.

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