Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?
Custom Made Theatre Co.
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's reviews of You Mean to Do Me Harm and Baby Doll and Jeanie's review of Church and State

Matt Weimer and Hilary Hesse
Photo by Jay Yamada
It should be hard to feel empathy for Martin. First, he is incredibly successful: the youngest-ever winner of the Pritzker Prize (architecture's Nobel), and designer of a planned multi-billion dollar development project. He's also married to a beautiful, funny, sexy woman, and has a son who loves him dearly. Oh, and he's having an affair. With a goat.

But in this Custom Made Theatre Co. production of Edward Albee's Tony Award-winning The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, Martin (Matt Weimer) is (despite all the other good things going on in his life) so isolated, so adrift in his loneliness, so beset by the condemning forces of societal norms that we manage, ultimately, to feel his pain. We also manage to laugh quite a bit, because Albee's text is so rich and lays bare so much hypocrisy in such clever ways, that we can't help ourselves, despite the taboo. As Stevie (Hilary Hesse), Martin's wife, says, after being informed of her husband's caprine dalliance, it's "something so awful, you have to laugh."

Though it's pretty much all they talk about, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? isn't about bestiality, but loneliness and isolation. The affair with the adorable Sylvia is important only because it places Martin in a position outside all behavior most people would think of as acceptable. Unlike a murderer or abuser or callow thief, whom an audience can feel justified in despising, Martin hurts no one. (The relationship is presented as consensual—it is Sylvia who bats her big eyes at Martin, and she who toddles on her hooves to the fence to nuzzle him.) Martin knows that what he is doing is far beyond any human norms, yet to him, the love he feels for Sylvia—and what he feels in return from her—is as real as any of the other, more acceptable relationships in his life. When he goes to a support group for people like himself, he finds the others are not like him at all—they feel shame and disgust at their predilections, whereas Martin experiences only the joy of love. He never knew how lonely he was, but when he meets Sylvia, it all becomes clear to him. Yet the object of his affection, ironically, becomes the source of even further isolation.

This, of course, drives him deeper into the depths of loneliness. So when his best friend of 40 years, Ross (Ryan Hayes), the host of a smart TV talk show, comes over to interview him on the occasion of his 50th birthday and his Pritzker Prize announcement, Martin can stand his loneliness no longer. Bad decision, for this leads to his secret being revealed to Stevie and his son Billy (Max Seijas), who are understandably floored by the revelation.

The fact that Billy has just come out of the closet to his parents as gay underlines a point Albee makes that reinforces the withdrawal into isolation Martin has made: the characters exist in our world, where homosexuality—once nearly as taboo as falling in love with a goat—no longer carries the shame it once did, and this helps Martin's transgression stand out even more sharply.

Custom Made, who seem to get better and better with each passing year, have opened this season with a very solid production of a terrific play. Scenic designer Sarah Phykitt has created a lovely environment that, while it lacks the luxe touches the apartment of a world-class architect would likely have, still feels like the sort of place Martin and Stevie would live. The gold and blue color scheme is elegant but understated, and the space makes excellent use of the cramped confines of the theater, giving a sense of expansiveness and scale.

This is Paul Stout's first outing as a director, and he struggles to tease out the comic rhythms in Albee's text. Lines that should be delivered at a clip often feel behind the beat, and moments where a pregnant pause would help a line land with greater impact are sometimes rushed.

His cast can't quite overcome this, though Hilary Hesse as Stevie stands out with a powerful, funny performance. She gets many of the biggest laughs of the night. The audience roared when Stevie wondered if the reason Martin may have taken up with Sylvia was that she has "only two breasts." But her intensity isn't necessarily a good thing when her castmates can't quite keep up with her. Hesse does sharp, sexy, and bitter incredibly well, but Weimer, Hayes and Seijas have a hard time creating a connection with her.

Weimer has some lovely moments, especially when he's being interviewed by Hayes' character, Ross. Ross is lauding Martin and listing his accomplishments, and though it's Ross who is speaking, we can't help but stare at Martin, whose pasted-on celebrity smile wavers and oscillates as Ross drones on with his praise. It's a perfect set-up to the unworthiness his character is feeling, but hasn't yet revealed. But Weimer and Hayes, as two supposed best friends for 40 years, sadly have little chemistry. There's no sense of history or respect between them, other than what Albee lays out in his text.

Late in the show (90 intermission-less minutes), Martin asks a question that strikes at the heart of what The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? is all about. "Is there anything anyone doesn't get off on, whether we admit it or not?" reminds us that everyone has a kink of one sort or another, and though we may be alone in whatever our personal peccadilloes may be, there is no need for us to be lonely.

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia, through October 20, 2018, by Custom Made Theatre in conjunction with Just Theater, at Custom Made Theatre, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco CA. Shows are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00pm, with matinees Saturdays at 2:00pm. Tickets range from $35-$50, and are available at