Reworked Albee Classic Ruffles Some in Theater World

Edward Albee recently expanded his first play, The Zoo Story, from one act into two, almost a half-century after its premiere. That's raised controversy within the theater community.

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Edward Albee, of course, is one of America's best-known playwrights, and this March, he celebrates his 80th birthday. He's still creating new plays. His latest called "Me, Myself and I" premiered last night at the McArthur Theater in Princeton, New Jersey.

Edward Albee established his reputation with his very first play, "The Zoo Story," still considered one of the most performed plays in America. But this year, almost a half-century after its premiere, Edward Albee returned to the one act, and he's expanded it to two. That's upset some people in the theater.

Ms. Caitlin Shetterly reports.

CAITLIN SHETTERLY: Edward Albee was just 30 years old when "The Zoo Story" first hit the boards off Broadway. The play is set on and around a bench in Central Park where the character, Peter, is accosted by Jerry, who requires that he listen to his story about his landlady and her malevolent dog.

In a recent New York production, Dallas Roberts played Jerry.

(Soundbite of Broadway play, "The Zoo Story")

Mr. DALLAS ROBERTS (Actor): (As Jerry) The day I tried to killed the dog, I bought only one hamburger. And well, I thought it was a murderous portion of rat poison. When I bought that hamburger, I asked the man not to bother with the rolls; all I wanted was the meat. I expected some reaction from him, like, we don't sell hamburgers without rolls, or what do you want to do, eat it out of your hands.

But no, he smiled benignly, wrapped the hamburger in wax paper, and said a bite for your pussycat. I wanted to say no, not really. It's part of a plan to poison a dog I know, but you can't really say a dog I know without sounding funny. So I said, a little too loud I'm afraid and too formally, yes, a bite for my pussycat.

SHETTERLY: Jerry lives in a small room, in a grim, crowded tenement on the Upper West Side with a gay, black queen, a Puerto Rican family and a few other transients like himself. Albee says he lived in places a lot like that when he first left home for New York City.

Mr. EDWARD ALBEE (Playwright): I was adopted by a wealthy family at a house in Larchmont, New York, about 20 miles from New York. We didn't get along very well. So when I was 18 they threw me out and I left and moved to Greenwich Village, which was the longest journey that anybody could possibly take. It was 18 miles from Republican facetious Westchester County to Greenwich Village. And I lived here ever since, ever since I was 18 years old.

SHETTERLY: After "The Zoo Story" became a success, Albee was able to find nicer digs and he quit his day job delivering telegrams for Western Union. He settled into writing plays fulltime, but something about "The Zoo Story" nagged at him.

Mr. ALBEE: I hope "The Zoo Story" was okay. It works perfectly well as a play. It's a good play. But I always felt that I underwrote the character of Peter. They just see - he sits there and he's sort of backboard for Jerry's ideas. And I wanted to know more about Peter. I wanted the audience to know more about Peter - who he was, where he came from, why he reacted the way he did to Jerry.

SHETTERLY: So Albee set about the task of writing a first act, more than four decades after he pulled the last page of "The Zoo Story" out of his typewriter. He wrote the new opening in two weeks. And it takes audiences away from the park bench and into the apartment that Peter shares with his wife, Ann.

(Soundbite of Broadway play, "The Zoo Story)

Ms. JOHANNA DAY (Actress): (As Ann) When we come together in bed and I know we're going to - what's the term young people use - going to do it, when we come together in bed and I know we're going to make love, I know it's going to be two people who love each other, giving quiet, orderly, predictable, deeply pleasurable joy. And believe me, my darling, it's enough. It's more than enough most of the time, but where is the rage, the animal. We're animals. Why don't we behave like that? Like beasts. Is it that we love each other too safely, maybe, that we're secure? That we're too civilized? Don't we ever hate one another?

SHETTERLY: Actress Johanna Day played Ann in the recent New York production. She's thrilled that Albee wrote a part for a woman in what had been an iconic man's play.

Ms. DAY: I had read it in school, in acting school - American Academy of Dramatic Arts. But I was a girl and that was like 200 years ago, so it didn't mean as much to me as it did to the young men that I knew.

SHETTERLY: And why do you think?

Ms. DAY: Because it's men struggling, men desperate, trying to tell their story, trying to be understood, trying to have a connection. It's got violence in it. It's got humor in it, and then a lot of intelligence.

SHETTERLY: Not everyone in the theater community is pleased, however, in large part because Albee is now insisting that "The Zoo Story" can no longer be performed professionally on its own. It has to be performed with the new opening act, under the title, "Peter and Jerry."

Robert Orchard, the executive director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard, says he's never known of a situation quite like this.

Mr. ROBERT ORCHARD (Executive Director, American Repertory Theater, Harvard): The idea of an iconic play like "The Zoo Story," which everybody knows and which every theater student has performed, or at least been involved with, to have it all of sudden no longer available is kind of a shock to the system.

Edward Albee, of course, has every right to do that, but nevertheless, it's a loss and it's one that will limit choices. And from that perspective, it's regrettable. But on the other hand, the themes of the play are obviously now embraced by, you know, another piece that he's written. So I think you can still explore the same territory. But still, it's quite hard to imagine not having "The Zoo Story" around.

SHETTERLY: Orchard can no longer stage "The Zoo Story" at A.R.T., but he can present it with his students because colleges and amateur companies need no agreements from Albee.

New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood thinks the decision to restrict professional companies is a mistake.

Mr. CHARLES ISHERWOOD (Theater Critic, The New York Times): "The Zoo Story" was first produced in the U.S. on a bill with Samuel Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape." And I think to preclude the possibility of other, you know, (unintelligible) the petitions being made by enterprising producers or directors. And it's kind of sad. And "The Zoo Story" is such a seminal play in the American theater that to limit the way it's produced or in one context it's produced is - I can understand why people would be upset about that.

SHETTERLY: But playwright Edward Albee says it's ultimately his play to do with as he sees fit.

Mr. ALBEE: Some people thought he may have written it, but I own it because that was such moving experience to me when I was a younger person. How dare he do anything to it? Well, tough, since I made it better. That's fine.

For example, when I first sold Beckett's play, "Krapp's Last Tape," it was one of those moving experiences in my life. However, I just didn't come to the conclusion that I owned it. I knew that Beckett had written it, and I was along for the ride and wasn't I lucky at what he had done. And if he had wanted to rewrite it or add something to it, since I knew what a great playwright he was, I would have been perfectly happy to go along with him because he knows better.

SHETTERLY: Albee says that he never really got the chance to fully get it why "The Zoo Story" ends the way it does. He says he wanted to give audiences a better understanding not only of Peter, who was little more than a cipher in the original one-act, but also of themselves.

Mr. ALBEE: He's been so troubled by what Jerry is telling him, and learning so much about the other way that people live, people unlike him who have not made the decisions, the compromises, or had the opportunity to make the decisions and the compromises. That he feels that he must stand up for that, which he really doesn't believe. That's a sad thing. So many people lie so much in their lives. Lying to yourself, of course, is the really dangerous one. And I don't why because lying is so difficult. Telling the truth is really a lot more interesting.

SHETTERLY: With that in mind, Edward Albee says audiences are welcomed to go along with him for the ride, or not. The choice is theirs.

For NPR News, I'm Caitlin Shetterly.

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