The British certainly like their adultery plays, as Peter Nichols, Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn, among many others, could tell you, and they’re also famous for adoring animals. The stage, therefore, couldn’t be better set for a hit London engagement of “The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?,” in which the proverbial “other woman” is, in fact, an animal. It helps that Edward Albee’s electrifying Tony Award winner has arrived at the Almeida in an acute staging from Albee veteran helmer Anthony Page that firmly demonstrates the power of the play, while distributing the pathos rather differently from the production that boldly ran for the better part of a year in New York.
On Broadway, it was impossible to look anywhere but at the extraordinary Bill Pullman, playing a wounded innocent of an adulterer possessed of much the same soulfulness as his beloved Sylvia, the four-legged creature with whom he has fallen headlong in love. While co-star Mercedes Ruehl got the Tony nod and Sally Field, in the second cast, a crop of raves, “The Goat,” for this observer, belonged to Pullman, giving as poignantly sorrowful a perf as I have seen.
The British production, by contrast, shares the wealth. Perhaps it’s because Jonathan Pryce doesn’t project innocence to begin with, or because the occasional slippage of his American accent suggests someone on the outside of the role looking in (his consonants sound a social order too low for the part). Whatever the reason, Albee’s own reckoning with the Eumenides referred to in passing distributes no small amount of pain to Kate Fahy, Pryce’s real-life partner, in the essentially reactive role of the wife, Stevie. Also to a blazing young actor, Eddie Redmayne, who plays the couple’s 17-year-old gay son, Billy, with such harrowing conviction that the play now seems just as much the kid’s (sorry) tragedy as mom and dad’s.
And a tragedy “The Goat” surely is, even without the etymology of the word in Greek (“tragoidia,” or “goat song”) to buttress the argument. It’s not so much that Page’s staging may be darker than the New York one: Comparisons of that nature are difficult, not least because Broadway audiences inevitably arrive at a show primed to laugh at just about anything, as is never the case in London. The more salient fact is that Page, whose Albee productions in London include “Three Tall Women” and “A Delicate Balance” on the West End as well as a fine National double bill of “Marriage Play” and “Finding the Sun,” honors Albee’s subtitle to the printed text of this play: “Notes toward a definition of tragedy.” And watching Billy make an 11th-hour transgression to rival the one so furiously debated concerning his father is to see two generations in joint thrall to a world beyond logic, beyond rules and, most crucially, beyond ready moral judgment. Little wonder Billy’s closing line to the play is a question, since answers are nowhere to be found.
Albee, at the same time, wouldn’t be Albee without having plentiful fun along the way, starting with his riffs on titles or lines from other plays. Stevie’s meditative recollection at having “been so happy” makes her sound for all the world like a Manhattanite Mary Tyrone, even if her masculine name, Stevie, sounds like a sly riposte to all those pedants who wish to see Martha, from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” as a male figure.
And perhaps not since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton acted “Virginia Woolf” onscreen have warring Albee spouses been so notably played by an actual couple. While Pryce gets the fidgety sense of distraction that drives Martin at the start, as well as his rage at the betrayal wrought by his tell-all friend Ross (Matthew Marsh), the greater revelation is the tall, elegant Fahy — returning to the stage after a long absence — in what is, admittedly, the easier role.
It’s something of a relief to see Stevie not played as a screaming banshee but as a quick-witted grammarian whose speech evokes an expletive-prone Annie Hall (“lah-di-dah, lah-di-fucking-dah”) and who sees through to a darkness of her own creation — to that realm where, she says in a remark worthy of Beckett, “the laughter (has) stopped.”
Fahy may be a little too ready to sacrifice the humor in the role: Her line about “redecorating” following Stevie’s systematic destruction of much of Hildegard Bechtler’s sleekly split-level set gets nary a laugh, whereas the same remark was a comic landmine in New York. That scarcely matters, though, given one’s sense of game-playing partners who insist on form, no matter how furious the content. (“Nicely put,” one says to the other in the middle of a take-no-prisoners fight.)
But whereas the fadeout of “Virginia Woolf” at least suggests a way forward in George and Martha’s co-existence, the ending of “The Goat” tips more toward the abyss favored by “A Delicate Balance.” There’s nothing delicate, of course, about the topics or emotions raised by this play: “I am diminished,” says Martin simply, and so are all the characters, leaving only the audience to achieve, as is the way of tragedy, catharsis and come through enhanced.