A Devastating GOAT Song
Edward Albee has little patience for attempts to unravel his notoriously knotty plays. “I tend to become uncooperative—and occasionally downright hostile—when people ask me what my plays ‘are about,’ he wrote in a letter addressed to the audience of one of his more recent productions. Though Albee wasn’t talking specifically about The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?—his 2002 Tony-Award-winner, which opened last week at Columbia’s Rep Stage—he has undoubtedly fielded frequent requests over the years to shed light on that play’s “deeper meaning.”
At least on the surface, The Goat features one of Albee’s more straightforward plots. He establishes the central problem in the first ten minutes (if you haven’t already guessed from the title). A middle-aged woman, Stevie, jokingly asks her adoring husband, Martin, if he has been having an affair. Yes, Martin confesses: Her name is Sylvia. “Who is Sylvia?” Stevie inquires, still laughing. “A goat,” comes the shattering reply. The remainder of the play traces the fallout—by turns hilarious and heart-breaking—of this revelation. Director Kasi Campbell and her excellent cast at Rep Stage hit all the right notes, yet the final blackout still left me wondering (to the disdain of the writer, I’m sure): “Yes, but Mr. Albee, what is your play really about?”
Part of me thinks The Goat is a parody of “middle class” morality. There are plenty of laughs, along with an especially self-deluding hypocrite. (Not Martin, whom Albee treats with a courageous degree of sympathy, but his insufferable best friend, Ross, whose behavior suggest he approves of infidelity so long as the object of the man’s lust walks on two legs, not four). Yet by play’s end the characters have all suffered too greatly for such a glib interpretation.
Another part of me thinks Albee is satirizing right-wing intolerance toward homosexuals—it was only a year after The Goat opened on Broadway that then-senator Rick Santorum lumped together same-sex marriage and bestiality. Albee—who is gay himself—gives a prominent role to Stevie and Martin’s teenaged son, Billy, whose journey out of the closet becomes infinitely more difficult in the wake of his father’s perverseness. Martin’s defense of his actions is so heartfelt, and Albee’s skill so formidable, one finds oneself dangerously tempted to agree—is it so far-fetched that a respectable, intelligent, by all accounts decent man could fall in love with a goat? Then Stevie reminds us exactly what Martin has betrayed and what he continues to betray with each rationalization—not mere standards of decency but the love and faith of his life partner. No proponent of tolerance, let alone sexual freedom, could argue against her anguished cries.
There is also a part of me that wonders whether Albee is just messing with us—how it must tickle him to hear us try to make sense of the incomprehensible! The visceral horror of seeing this beautiful family destroyed is profounder than volumes of critical analysis. Experienced in this light, The Goat resembles nothing so much as modern-day Greek tragedy, with the sacrificial goat written into the drama. In an instant Martin throws away his charmed existence, and Stevie’s vengeance is swift … and devastating.
That these emotions are as poignant at Rep Stage as they were on Broadway is a testament to Campbell’s work with a magnificent quartet of actors. As Stevie and Martin, Emily Townley and Bruce R. Nelson are flawless. Like every Albee couple since George and Martha, they delight in word games and verbal sparring (“Very good” is a common—if overused—household phrase), only Stevie and Martin are those rare lovers who seem genuinely delighted by each other’s company. For them, teasing is an extension of lovemaking.
Townley and Nelson dance nimbly through the opening routines like a pair of master comedians before baring their souls in the marathon second act—an incredible piece of writing by Albee that balances brutal honesty with self-deception, tenderness with masochism, and more smashed sculptures in fifteen minutes of tragedy than in the whole of any farce. “You have broken something, and it cannot be fixed,” Stevie wails at the scene’s climax, and her exit shortly thereafter concludes one of the most wrenching, exhilarating stretches of theatre I have experienced.
If the play’s third act never quite recaptures this power, it is not an indictment of anyone onstage. Having endured the total collapse of his marriage, Martin must try to salvage his son’s still-beating heart. Travis Hudson makes an affecting Billy, and he and Nelson are as convincing together in their roles as Nelson and Townley are in theirs. Still, much of the conversation between father and son sounds familiar, a reworking of themes which Martin and Stevie have already exhausted, and Albee’s attempts to introduce new sources of conflict—in particular an unexpected kiss—come across as more sensationalistic than anything having to do with goats.
Steven Carpenter is appropriately, infuriatingly pompous as the aforementioned Ross.
The set is a thing of beauty—Martin is an award-winning architect, and designer Daniel Ettinger gives him a home befitting his talents, replete with tall (almost temple-like) walls and mirrors, exquisitely decorated by properties designer Andrea “Dre” Moore, and warmly lit by lighting designer Dan Covey.
In her program notes, dramaturg Lisa A. Wilde articulates one of Albee’s favorite themes: how civilized society “has resulted in a sterile, desiccated existence in which our animal nature paces restlessly, rattling at the bars.” Yet the family that made its home in this opulence seemed for the longest time to be not sterile or desiccated but happy, healthy, flourishing. That disease and despair find even such people as Martin, Stevie, and Billy is the tragic insight first dramatized by Aeschylus and Sophocles, re-imagined for 21st-century America by its greatest living playwright, and re-staged by one of Maryland’s finest theaters.
The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? is playing at Rep Stage, located on the campus of Howard Community College at 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7 P.M., Fridays at 8 P.M., Saturdays at 2 P.M. and 8 P.M., and Sundays at 2 P.M. and 7 P.M., through June 27th. Tickets are $18-$30; Wednesday performances are designated pay-what-you-can. For more information, call 410-772-4900 or visit www.repstage.org.