Although not a masterpiece like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” Edward Albee’s 2002 Tony award winner “The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?” deserves applause for daring and overrides its imperfections with shock value and provocative sexual insights.
Sex hangups are a comic and dramatic staple, but three-time Pulitzer Prize recipient Albee blasts into particularly bizarre territory with his tale about an eminent 50-year-old architect passionately in love with a goat named Sylvia. Martin (Brian Kerwin, who starred in the Albee-directed Ahmanson-at-the-Doolittle revival of “Virginia Woolf”) is shown to be a warm, ingratiating family man and a portrait of conventional normalcy.
He assures his elegant spouse Stevie (Cynthia Mace) that she’s the love of his life and displays affection for Billy (Patrick J. Adams), his gay 17-year-old son. But Martin makes the fatal mistake of confiding his secret compulsion to lifelong friend Ross (James Eckhouse).
Kerwin eloquently projects Martin’s panicky, childlike need to be understood, yet his choice of the insensitive Ross as confidant strains credibility, Showing Ross the goat’s picture is also an easy comic shtick. It would be far more believable if he had spoken to a psychiatrist, or if his shameful secret had been accidentally revealed.
What makes Martin work so well as a character is Kerwin’s addled “do I have Alzheimer’s?” cluelessness. This seems odd at first until we recognize that Martin’s non-sequiturs are evidence of a mind slowly coming unhinged by sexual conflict. He manages a desperate defense, “I thought we all were animals,” and Stevie draws a distinction, “we stay with our own kind.”
Martin and Stevie enjoy witty banter and Noel Coward playacting, and their marriage — framed by Michael Olich’s exquisitely designed set of wood and slate, oriental rug and columns filled with objets d’art — appears ideal, the epitome of sexual, psychological and financial fulfillment. This makes Martin’s sudden craving for contact with an animal seem an aberration unconnected to his past or present, emphasizing Albee’s point that unexpected, wayward urges sleep in every soul, and require only the right circumstances to bring them out.
Confrontations between Martin and his appalled wife are staged by director Warner Shook with violent effectiveness. Cynthia Mace (who won plaudits for her Stevie at ACT in Seattle) flings out one-liners that defuse the horror (“I suppose I should be grateful it wasn’t a male goat …” “I wonder when he’ll start cruising livestock”), while at the same time showing the heartbreak and betrayal at her husband’s bent for bestiality. As an actress, Mace is like a multi-keyed instrument, a virtuoso producing sharply contrasting emotional chords — brittle sophistication, confusion, despair, rage.
It’s a strong indication of Albee’s success in advocating tolerance that James Eckhouse’s Ross, who spouts all the morally correct attitudes, is the play’s least likable or palatable character. Newcomer Patrick J. Adams is perhaps the most sympathetic. Making his professional debut as son Billy in this production, Adams’ intense portrayal indicates a bright future. Even when he expresses hatred and calls his father a pervert, he makes us feel that love lies beneath the surface of his accusations. He brings off a startling sexual encounter that packs more potency than the goat-driven dramatics.
Hampered by the show’s theater-in-the-round format, the blocking allows only half the audience to see this crucial sequence clearly, a problem that needs solving.
Since the author is seeking to convey ideas that many theatergoers will find repellent, Albee coats them cleverly with comedy, to such an extent that the waves of laughter linger on too long after matters have turned deadly serious. It takes a momentary suggestion of incest — triggered by an insignificant, temporary sexual “click” — to confirm the situation’s full dramatic weight.
The climax, when Stevie exacts a gory, grisly revenge, is more admirable as a piece of theatrical ingenuity than as a plausible conclusion, but Kerwin brings true, genuine emotion to Martin’s final words, “I am alone, all alone.” Albee is wise enough to let us speculate about the outcome, courageously refusing to compromise and comfort us with glib, tidy answers.