How Albee’s ‘Zoo Story’ Birthed ‘Peter and Jerry’

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1. In 1958, Edward Albee, a West Village layabout, writes a one-act as “a kind of 30th birthday present to myself,” as he now puts it. In it, down- at-heels Jerry and bourgeois Peter erupt in violence over a Central Park bench. Albee calls it The Zoo Story.

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2. Albee finds a Swiss actor-director, Pinkas Braun, who agrees to translate it into German and help stage it in Berlin alongside Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. In the fall of 1959, Albee travels to Germany to see his first produced play. He doesn’t understand a word.

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3. Back in New York, The Zoo Story gets a reading at the Actors Studio. Norman Mailer declares, “That’s the best fucking one-act play I’ve ever seen.”

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4. The Zoo Story opens in 1960 at the Provincetown Playhouse. Reviews are mixed, but it makes Albee an overnight sensation. By the mid-sixties, he’s won five Tonys for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and The Zoo Story is the second-most-produced school play in America.

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5. In 1981, Albee writes an alternate version called Another Part of the Zoo—“a comedy, almost a parody thing, for a gay benefit,” he says, with a new backstory involving a gay affair. His biographer, Mel Gussow, considered it an artistic low point. “I knew what it was,” Albee counters. “It was a joke.”

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6. Albee’s career rebounds a decade later, but The Zoo Story leaves him unsatisfied. “We don’t learn a lot about Peter,” he says. In 2003, Connecticut’s Hartford Stage commissions him to write a first act about Peter’s family called Homelife. Albee picks Pam MacKinnon to direct the two acts together, and they debut there as Peter and Jerry.

Photo: Courtesy of Barlow Hartman

7. Three years later, it’s set for a New York transfer. MacKinnon stays on, and introduces Albee to Dallas Roberts. Albee loves him as Jerry. For Peter, he goes with an old favorite—Bill Pullman, whose role in 2002’s The Goat had helped get Albee his first best-play Tony since Virginia Woolf.

Edward Albee’s Peter and Jerry
Second Stage Theatre; opens November 11.

How Albee’s ‘Zoo Story’ Birthed ‘Peter and Jerry’