Bill Pullman — last seen in New York as the zoologically errant husband in Edward Albee's shocker The Goat or Who is Sylvia? ("a seminal experience," says the actor) — was on the ranch that he and his brother own near Butte, Montana, when, in March, the telephone rang. It was Albee, saying he'd like to send Pullman "a play I think you'd be very much interested in."
Actually, when the script of Peter and Jerry arrived, it was two plays welded into one: The Zoo Story, which had skyrocketed an unknown, 32-year-old Albee onto everyone's awareness map back in 1960, preceded now by Homelife, a new work of the same short length, in which we meet nice, tame, buttoned-down Peter — he of the cats and the parakeets — in a marital give-and-take of suddenly unbuttoned raw sexual revelation, just before Peter goes out in Central Park to sit on a bench and read a book and be aggressed-upon by Jerry, the wickedly insightful psychopath.
"Here I am in Montana, cleaning irrigation ditches and like that," Pullman says one recent morning in New York, before the start of rehearsals for the play's Nov. 11 opening at Second Stage (it continues to Dec. 30), "when this play arrives with its stark, walking-on-ice urban story." But as a graduate, so to speak, of The Goat, a drama his agent had been "a little trepidacious about" and other actors had turned down, Pullman was used to walking on ice with Mr. Albee.
One complication arose on the spot. Expedition 6, a play Pullman had written and was set to direct at San Francisco's Magic Theatre — a docudrama set in 2003 "after the Columbia blew up, right when we were about to invade Iraq" — was scheduled to open just as Peter and Jerry rehearsals were to be in full swing. An obliging Second Stage delay in the New York dates made everything possible for Pullman. And now, at this start of Peter and Jerry rehearsals — with Pullman as Peter, Johanna Day as Peter's wife and Dallas Roberts as Jerry, directed by Pam MacKinnon — has Albee said anything about why he felt a prequel to The Zoo Story was necessary, 40-odd years after the original?
"No. But he did say, 'The audience is very interested in everything that Peter is doing while he's listening.' That was it. But I think that all the material in the first act" — between Peter and his wife, Ann — "is active in Peter while he's listening to Jerry. There are a lot of small words and echoes — not direct links, but oblique references to things dealt with in the first play. A subtext, so to speak. Choices that Peter made all his life being reexamined.
"Edward is not just clever, you know. There's a potentiality he gives to his characters. You can't just say the way they're going to go. He's clever, but not just clever."