A married, middle-aged man falls in love with a goat. Edward Albee’s set-up might be simple, but it’s perfectly positioned – silly and shocking and, at its best, achingly sad. “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” deserves far better than Ian Rickson’s stagey production starring Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo, which plays the joke ahead of the emotional truth. As such, a play that should feel like a brain glitch, one that tap dances over all manner of taboos, emerges instead on an even keel, too level-headed by half. Albee’s tragicomedy throws every convention into question. Rickson and his cast cling to them for dear life.
At a moment of crumbling liberal consensus, uncertainty raging like a wildfire, “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” is all too pertinent. Martin (Lewis) is a world-renowned architect, long happily married to a bright, breezy woman (Okonedo). They’re perfect bourgeois liberals, an interracial couple with a gay teenage son (newcomer Archie Madekwe). Their brownstone, in Rae Smith’s design, is a bastion of good taste — Eames chairs and exposed brickwork, a Bauhaus book on the floor. Martin’s just turned 50. He’s a bit out of sorts. And he’s taken up with a goat named Sylvia. They’re in love.
Lewis makes abundantly clear that Martin means no malice and poses no threat. He’s an unworldly, sweet-hearted soul, as helpless as he is harmless. He’s almost too soft for society, an intellectual naïf whose wife steers him through life. Right now, he’s unable to recall simple names or dates, and greets his oldest friend (Jason Hughes) like a familiar face he can’t quite place. It’s as if his brain’s been rebooted. When Lewis pulls up a chair, it’s like he’s forgotten how to sit down. Everything, in other words, is up for grabs.
That’s the thrust of his bestiality — it goes beyond the bounds of all social norms and moral conventions, but, if it’s as genuine and loving and reciprocal as he insists, that might be its only wrong. Who’s to say what’s acceptable and what’s not? Behind Stevie’s furious confrontation of her husband sit a whole heap of questions about the limits of human sexuality, morality and society.
Smith’s set design makes that clear. A living room studded with sculptures and abstract art on the walls, it could be a museum of human achievement and aesthetics. Cut flowers sit in a nice vase, while outside, overgrown creepers push against the windows. Nature, kept at bay, tries to force its way in. Martin’s affair is an affront to everything orderly, but, as he and Stevie lock horns, the walls expand and, just for the night, the world seems to open up. It’s telling that Martin’s building a new World City, and his talk of utopia suggests a need to scrub the slate clean and start over.
Okonedo’s casting adds an extra dimension. Like her son’s sexuality, Stevie’s own marriage would have been off-limits once. As the night wears on, Albee pushes the envelope of alt-sexuality. Can incest ever be acceptable? Can pedophilia? We can regulate sexuality, but can we control it? These are big, bracing questions. They run alongside an assessment of marriage. Is Martin’s betrayal sexual or emotional, moral or natural?
The ideas are all there. The feeling is not. Instead of going through a whole range of emotions, Okonedo just gets really, really cross. All she does is bark at her husband and, in return, Lewis simply pleads for understanding. They go back and forth, one note hammered away, and that one note is too rational by half. Okonedo yells at her husband like he’s screwed the family savings, not a farmyard animal.
This should be too much for Stevie. She’s overwhelmed and confused, not sure whether this is a joke. Shame should knock into hilarity; disgust into concern into scorn into shock. Okonedo just shouts. She squares up to her husband and she shouts herself hoarse.
Rickson simply leaves them at loggerheads and, for such an exacting director, he goes missing here. The blocking’s appalling — all head-to-heads, downstage center — and the acting’s no better. Feet get planted, arms get waggled and conventions get one over on credibility. For a play that probes at social codes, that’s an issue. Rickson illustrates the idea, but never comes close to enacting it.