Edward Albee’s The Goat or Who is Sylvia? uses one of society’s few remaining unmentionable taboos to explore the limits of tolerance. It begins as a conventional drawing-room family comedy, then verges on absurdist farce only to metastasize into blood-soaked Shakespearean tragedy.
Director Tim Hedgepeth and a top-notch cast punch every possible emotional button during this non-stop, full-throttle, unnervingly intimate 90-minute production by AtticRep at Trinity University, which features a revealing set by artist Chris Sauter that is thoroughly deconstructed in the hilarious yet hair-raising second act.
Andrew Thornton is appealingly down-to-earth as Martin, who has just won architecture’s highest prize, the Pritzker. His wife Stevie, the gracious Gloria Sanchez, appears happy with their marriage, and they both accept their son Billy (Robby Glass), who is gay (although Martin expects his son will “get over it”). Ensconced in a modernist house in an upper-class New York suburb, they seem to be living the politically correct American Dream. Gloria and Martin trade lines like a couple from a Noël Coward play, their comfort with each other contrasting sharply with the warring spouses in Albee’s best-known plays, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance.
Martin has a secret, however, and it’s gradually pried loose by his testosterone-driven friend Ross, a rambunctious Rick Frederick, who shows up to tape a television interview. What starts as a fluffy profile turns weird and Ross is devastated to discover that his oldest childhood chum has found true love in a barnyard.
The revelation is sure to test your credulity, and it’s never clear if Albee is being sincere or merely provocative. His plays often seem more like intellectual exercises than heartfelt drama, and Goat works more on a symbolic level than an emotional one. Thornton’s Martin is the most even-keeled character in the play, though his newfound happiness turns his home into a battlefield.
In a letter to Stevie, Ross the Judas reveals Martin’s beastly affair, lighting a fuse that threatens to blow his friend’s marriage to smithereens. A symbol of conventional morality, Stevie explodes in the fierce and funny second act, smashing crockery, art objects, and furnishings, demolishing the family’s façade of complacency. Sanchez adeptly transforms from modest housewife to raging Fury, though it’s not so much the sex as the fact that Martin says he “loves” his dewy-eyed Sylvia that sets her off.
Albee makes sure that the audience identifies with the low-key Martin, who becomes a scapegoat, uniting his friends and family in outrage. Martin is hostage to feelings he barely understands, and Albee wants us to be compassionate toward this ordinary man trapped in extraordinary circumstances. “I am alone … all alone” is his anguished cry.
Sauter, in his first design for the stage, draws from his art-world experience to reveal the fissures in the couple’s illusion of normality. Though limited by a plywood budget, Sauter conjures a designer-rich living room. Known for his conceptual installations, often inspired by the rooms of his childhood home, Sauter usually cuts his construction materials out of the walls of the gallery. In Goat, when Stevie tips over a coffee table or rips down a painting, gaping holes in the walls and flooring are revealed, though which metaphorical gales of trouble howl.
In the third act, Martin has a reconciliation of sorts with his son. As if he hasn’t pricked our consciences enough, Albee alludes to one last taboo by having Billy kiss his father on the lips, a brief interlude interrupted by the sudden arrival of Ross. But this encounter seems to be one more gratuitous provocation. Glass is smooth and assured as the cosmopolitan Billy, but it’s a little strange that he’s a lot more upset by his father’s transgression, which reeks of low-brow bad taste, than Martin is by what he thinks of as his son’s experimental sexual orientation.
But if Martin’s secret love wasn’t a goat, and was replaced by, say, father-son incest, Goat wouldn’t be quite so funny. There’s just something about a suave, successful architect getting it on with a goat that seems ridiculous and humorous to an urban audience more used to S&M kink than absurdist Hee Haw humor. The Goat may get yours, but it’s a play you’ll think about long after Stevie has her revenge.