The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? by Edward Albee. Directed by David Esbjornson. Scenic design by John Arnone. Costume design by Elizabeth Hope Clancy. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Mark Bennett. Cast: Bill Pullman, Mercedes Ruehl, Jeffrey Carlson, Stephen Rowe.
One of the most unusual and intriguing major plays to open in New York in many months has just arrived on Broadway at the Golden Theatre. In fact, Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? is probably the strangest theatre experience since last year's The Play About the Baby, also by Albee.
The Play About the Baby and this one have a fair amount in common, and both are unmistakably the property of the same author. But, despite what it's title might lead you to believe, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? is really more than a play about a billy.
If you're interested in a fascinating take on truly unusual subject matter, Albee's your man. Does anyone handle it better?
The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? starts off conventionally and even realistically, set in the smart, geometric living room designed by John Arone. The family housed there is headed by Martin (played by Bill Pullman), an architect who has won the prestigious Pritzker Prize, has obtained the contract to design a mammoth living community in the nation's heartland, and is celebrating his fiftieth birthday. "The sense that everything's going right," his wife Stevie, played by Mercedes Ruehl tells him, "is a sure sense that everything's going wrong."
She couldn't be more right, actually. Despite his many accomplishments, Martin is faced with two problems of great significance to him. First, his 18 year-old son Billy (Jeffrey Carlson) has recently come out of the closet, and it has been very difficult for Martin to accept the implications of that. Perhaps more significantly, for the last six months, Martin has been having an affair with Sylvia.
And yes, Sylvia is a goat.
If the play, with its detached, staccato dialogue and speech patterns had not registered strongly as an Albee work by now, from this point on, there can be no doubt. As Albee covers all the bases - Stevie finding out in a letter written by Martin's oldest friend Ross (Stephen Rowe), the son's reaction, and the eventual retribution - a play of two wildly divergent attitudes emerges.
The first is one of almost unrelenting comedy. No one involved shies away from the laughs the material brings out. For the audience, the laughter might be genuine or uncomfortable (it's hard to tell which, sometimes), but it's remarkably pervasive, affecting everything and everyone until the play's final moments, at which, for some strange reason, laughter is no longer enough.
Under this is the perhaps expected dark, tragic undercurrent. Martin's fall from glory, because of his love for an animal, is significant enough, but it is Miss Ruehl who brings it out best, giving a stunning performance, one of the season's best. When Stevie rounds on Martin about his infidelity, the words, "How can you love me when you love so much less?" are truly stinging; she gets right to Martin's heart, and yours. No one balances the comedy out better than she does.
That is not to say, though, that the other actors don't give strong performances. Everyone does a good job here. Carlson infuses his Billy with strong pain and hurt and Rowe's portrayal of Ross is equal parts disgust and bemusement. Pullman has a tendency to read more than a bit stiff onstage, though it's difficult to imagine Martin's words being spoken by any other voice. Albee's dialogue, through Pullman, sounds comfortable and natural.
Director David Esbjornson has done well almost across the board here, bringing a sense of reality to subject matter that frequently seems almost impossibly unbelievable. Kenneth Posner's lighting is an important contribution, but there's something about Arone's set design that steals the show away from almost everyone else. The house, which bears the strong look of an architect, truly appears that it, like the family it contains, is about to come apart at the seams.
There is much about The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? that is very good, though I doubt very much it is destined to be a classic. For a play of this subject matter, to last over an hour and a half while maintaining more than just a modicum of good taste and dramatic intensity is a remarkable achievement indeed.
Yet there's something about the final moments of the play that strike a dishonest chord. It's the only time during the course of the show that the performances, writing, and direction don't really come together. It feels like Albee was settling, providing not a happy ending or even a correct ending, but merely an acceptable one. This choice is all the more curious, since no one involved refused to embrace difficult subject matter until that point. Adultery, bestiality, and more (that won't be revealed here) are fair game, yet The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? has to end on a safe, almost sanitized note?
It's an unfortunate conclusion to what had been a provocative and thoroughly original play. If you want to see what all the fuss is about, yes, you have to see The Goat. It's a play that realizes so much of its potential, yet is sadly unable to drive its final words and images home.