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Getting His Goat

TheaterWorks of Hartford stages Edward Albee's bestial tragi-comedy "The Goat" through May 23 2004

A happily married man confides in his best friend that he is in love with someone else. But it's not another woman. It's a man. The friend is understandably appalled, and when the wife finds out--and of course she finds out--she's destroyed. This horrible revelation will certainly destroy their marriage, and if it became public knowledge it would also demolish his career, make him a pariah among his friends and subject him to almost universal ridicule and contempt. He knows he has broken a fundamental taboo. In his head he knows it's wrong, but to the depth of his soul he feels it's right.

That's the premise of Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning tragi-comedy "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" Except the new lover is not a man. Even though the current gay marriage debate has brought the homophobes out in force, these days homosexuality is broadly accepted, if still not universally embraced, in the straight population. But the fear and loathing that queer love once inspired is something Albee must have endured when he first came out as a gay man half a century ago.

And to me, that's where "The Goat" comes from, although I should note that the playwright himself denies it. Albee is famously elusive, though, refusing to define or explain his work, leaving audiences--and yes, critics--to find their own way through his enigmatic parables where naturalism meets the absurd and things are never quite what they seem. And when "The Goat" opened in New York two seasons ago, the playwright did announce that his purpose was to "test the limits of tolerance for the audience." He does that by putting the object of that romantic attraction not only outside the standard gender categories, but into another species.

The play's title character is Sylvia, a young goat with meltingly beautiful eyes. Her unlikely paramour is Martin, a famous architect at the top of his profession. He's successful, content, stable, and only slightly uneasy that his teenage son is gay. What's more, he's still passionately in love with his wife of 22 years, Stevie. But he's also helplessly in love with Sylvia.

In the first of the play's three brief scenes, Martin and Stevie entertain each other with playful banter, like a jousting couple in a Noel Coward comedy. They are both consummately literate and compulsively witty. Martin is also a bit of a pendant, insisting on accurate word usage to the point of obsession. In scene two, Stevie finds out about Martin's bestial affair, and the dialogue turns bitter and bloody. But even then, they pause to say "That's good" when the other gets off a particularly clever zinger. And Martin, as his life crashes down around him, can't resist correcting his son's grammar.

That middle scene is a masterpiece, and the strongest part of TheaterWorks' production. Its depth of pain and anger is almost frightening, while at the same time it's insistently, disturbingly funny. Rob Ruggiero's production doesn't really get going before this point. The first scene is a bit sluggish, missing the laughs that should be building from the beginning.

Malachy Cleary and Leslie Denniston, as Martin and Stevie, are very good at the sophisticated repartee, and powerfully effective when the marriage is breaking apart amid shards of smashed pottery and caustic quips. Though if we'd gotten a better sense in the early going of the intense passion the script tells us they feel for each other, it would have made that calamity even more agonizing.

The role of Ross, Martin's best friend, is a functional one. His job is basically to receive information and pass it on, and Kevin Hogan brings a cool deadpan to the task, perhaps a bit too cool. I'd like to have seen a stronger indication of the lifelong bond that makes Martin trust him with his terrible secret.

By contrast, the other supporting role, 17-year-old Billy, is a volcano of emotion as he watches his parents flaying each other. Zack Griffiths is magnificent here, as the boy's emotions erupt from him--tears, anger, bewilderment, disgust, despair. His is the performance that's going to stay with me.

We never see Sylvia the goat until the very end, but she is a constant presence--or rather, what she represents is. To Martin she's a paradigm of innocence and devotion, a romantic ideal. To every other human, she's a grotesque parody of all that, an unfathomable and unforgivable object of desire. Uniting these two extremes is an echo from mythology, the satyr, half man and half goat, the embodiment of lust, that primal territory between love and depravity.

The play's subtitle, "Who Is Sylvia?" is a quote from an ornate love ballad by Shakespeare. It's a question--"Who is Sylvia?" Albee wants us to wrestle with it, to test the limits of our tolerance, our understanding, our imagination.

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