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The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?

The laughter comes fast and easy at first. And why not? The play is about a man in love with a goat. Let's not mince words: a man having an affair with a goat. OK, OK -- a man having <I>sex</I> with a goat. The idea is absurd, ridiculous, repellent!

Stevie - Mercedes Ruehl Martin - Bill Pullman Ross - Stephen Rowe Billy - Jeffrey Carlson

The laughter comes fast and easy at first. And why not? The play is about a man in love with a goat. Let’s not mince words: a man having an affair with a goat. OK, OK — a man having sex with a goat. The idea is absurd, ridiculous, repellent!

But before long that laughter begins to stick in the throat, and by the end of the latest and possibly most provocative play from the chronically provocative Edward Albee, it has been replaced by something closer to anguish: for a family in tatters, and for the lack of compassion that is at the root of human destructiveness and, one senses uneasily, at the root of so much laughter. But most of all, it is for a man left in isolation, the goat-lover it has been so fun to laugh at, who is played by Bill Pullman in a performance as brave and fine and unflinching as this remarkable play itself.

On one level, “The Goat” is Albee’s perversely funny sendup of a standard mid-life crisis drama. Pullman’s Martin is an architect whose fabulous success is rather plainly put before us in exposition referring to his Pritzker Prize and his latest multibillion-dollar project. He and his loving wife Stevie (Mercedes Ruehl) reside in a stylishly appointed home, the living room full of Eames chairs and art books aptly assembled by set designer John Arnone. Their rapport is witty and easygoing, entirely intimate, and even the homosexuality of their single son Billy (Jeffrey Carlson) is treated as a kind of chic artifact, accepted with a hearty kind of enthusiasm that belies just a little unease.

The silken tableau could be a spread from Architectural Digest come to life. It represents the kind of life that’s traditionally upended, on stage and screen and indeed in life, by the standard infidelities: the other woman, the other man. And Martin’s nauseated smile and the furtive, culpable look in his eyes point toward this familiar fly in the ointment, which is hinted at in chipper comic interplay between spouses: a moment of mock-Noel Coward melodrama in which Martin suddenly confesses he’s in love with someone named Sylvia. “Who is Sylvia?” Stevie grandly intones. “She’s a goat,” he replies. Ha ha!

As in many Albee plays, this tight nuclear unit has a satellite in the form of a best friend, Ross (Stephen Rowe), to whom Martin soon confesses more sincerely. Ross is, of course, appalled; he writes to Stevie; soon the dung has hit the fan, if you will. The play’s centerpiece is a long, volatile confrontation between a sad and sheepish (forgive!) Martin and a bewildered and enraged Stevie, whom Ruehl plays with captivating wit and ferocity.

Albee’s writing, though funny and ever-eloquent, is less oblique than usual here — this is not an allegory shrouded in abstract settings and stylized language, he insists, and David Esbjornson’s crystal-clear direction accentuates its actuality. It is not a play about a man in love with a metaphor but with a real goat, which we will ultimately see onstage.

The characters, too, are so specific in their speech that they often interrupt their emotional combat to give credit for a pretty turn of phrase or excuse an inappropriate locution (“Women in deep woe often mix their metaphors,” Stevie says at one bleak moment). But there is a mournful undertow to their articulateness: Words are in the end a paltry way to describe the revolutions of the soul and the peculiar perversities the heart is capable of. As Martin attempts with increasing desperation to describe his predicament, Stevie only grows more enraged.

Well, who can blame her? Certainly not the audience, which delights in Stevie’s blazingly sarcastic retorts to Martin’s stammering efforts to describe his experience. She rattles and rages and greets his pleas for calm with witheringly funny ripostes. To Martin’s protestation that he loves her, Stevie says, “But I’m a human being. I have only two breasts. I walk upright. I give milk only on special occasions. You love me? I don’t understand.” She cries, too, tears of confusion and fury.

“You’ve broken something and it can’t be fixed,” she says bitterly, but it’s hard not to notice that she’s the one smashing crockery and upending the furniture. And the quiet sincerity of Martin, who recognizes the absurdity of his situation but also insists on its gravity, soon begins to work strangely on our sympathy. The cruelty in Stevie’s shrill attacks is in stark opposition to Martin’s wounded pleas (“Don’t mock me”) and tender descriptions of his “epiphany” with Sylvia. Albee has described the play as “testing the tolerance of the audience” — another way of saying that it tests the audience’s empathy.

It’s impossible to overpraise Pullman’s work: Not for a second does he sell his character’s soul for an easy laugh by betraying the truth of Martin’s feeling. The humanity of this performance is really a marvel to behold — forget the Tony (or don’t), Pullman deserves some sort of medal of honor for the simple conviction he brings to speeches that are liable to set the audience squirming when they’re not snorting (descriptions of a bestiality support group, for one). Pullman remains fiercely loyal to the dignity of his character, and his performance is integral to the play’s effectiveness.

In the play’s last scene, Ross reappears to witness a moment of complex intimacy between father and son, as Albee dares to probe even more deeply into the confusing intersections of love and sexuality — the moments when the forces of affection and need lead people to lose their bearings and tumble into strange behavior.

This is not just flashy envelope-pushing, either, but an extension of the play’s explorations into the darker corners of human sexuality. Ross’ sneering disgust (“Sick, sick, sick”) is maybe a bit overplayed, but it’s the kind of reaction many people have to behavior they regard as aberrant or abnormal. As Martin says, “Is there anything ‘we people’ don’t get off on? Is there anything someone doesn’t get off on, whether we admit it or not — whether we know it or not?”

Martin’s love for the goat does ultimately take on a more than literal significance. It stands for the secret failings, weaknesses, losses of way, moments of shame, embarrassing indulgences that mark every life and are usually carefully guarded from the scorn of public exposure. Driven to seek understanding for his, Martin meets only rage and ridicule: “I am alone … all alone,” he cries in the play’s harrowing last moments.

“The Goat” dares to suggest that even the most flawed and confused human beings deserve compassionate understanding, and the failure to proffer it is a species of bestiality far more abhorrent than the sexual kind.

The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?

Golden Theater; 804 seats; $75 top

Production: An Elizabeth Ireland McCann, Daryl Roth, Carole Shorenstein Hays, Terry Allen Kramer, Scott Rudin, Bob Boyett, Scott Nederlander and Sine/ZPI presentation of a play in one act by Edward Albee. Directed by David Esbjornson.

Creative: Set, John Arnone; costumes, Elizabeth Hope Clancy; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Mark Bennett; production stage manager, Erica Schwartz. Opened March 10, 2002, reviewed March 7. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast: Stevie - Mercedes Ruehl Martin - Bill Pullman Ross - Stephen Rowe Billy - Jeffrey Carlson

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