If you're going to have an affair with an animal, as someone does in Edward Albee's "The Goat," why, you might ask, choose one with horns and an ornery disposition rather than one that is sweet, cuddly and more pliable - more like a sheep? These are the sort of philosophical questions raised by Albee's altogether specious play. The reason that Martin, a world-famous architect, is having an affair with a goat, and not some other animal, is that Albee is aiming for something bigger. The Greek word tragedy derives from "goat song." Scholars theorize that drama itself may have begun with the rituals surrounding goat sacrifice. Toward the end of "The Goat," the architect's wife charges that this affair has not just destroyed their marriage but that it will also unsettle everyone they know. In tragedy, of course, the well-being of a whole community rests on the shoulders of the tragic hero. But let's stop here. You don't really want me to go on about how Albee's plot exemplifies the ground rules of tragedy, do you? The sad truth is that the genre "The Goat" better exemplifies is boulevard comedy, and even here it fails. For comedy to work on more than a gag level, you have to believe in the characters. From the second it begins, almost everything about "The Goat" rings false. Martin constantly tells us how perfect his marriage to Stevie, is. Until he met Sylvia (the title character), he insists, he has never been unfaithful to her. If so, why is their conversation so forced and artificial? The same is true of his banter with his best friend, Ross. If his relationships with the two people closest to him are so strained, no wonder he feels more comfortable with Sylvia. The only character with whom he seems genuinely comfortable is his gay son, Billy. The actors do everything in their power to make the action believable, but the oh-so-arch (and, for Albee, surprisingly inelegant) dialogue defeats them. Bill Pullman has an innocent air that makes him perfect as the love-silly Martin. He handles his big emotional revelations skillfully and his scenes with his son gracefully. Mercedes Ruehl delivers Stevie's relentless zingers with relish (even the embarrassing "Oh, you kid"), but her most powerful moments come in inarticulate groans. Her work is especially impressive since the character has no grounding - all we know about her is that she is Martin's wife. Stephen Rowe can't make Ross believable, but Jeffrey Carlson has a touching vulnerability as the son. John Arnone's set conveys Martin's architectural pretentions stylishly. It has a lot of very attractive crockery that gets smashed. Talk about tragedy!
Yes, there really is a goat in Edward Albee's new play, "The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?" which opened at the John Golden Theatre last night, but you wouldn't want to pet it.
As defiantly shocking as Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" years ago, his new show not only embraces every four-letter word common on HBO, but takes as its subject the last taboo, bestiality.
What begins as a domestic comedy turns into dark farce via a midlife crisis with a twist: A 50-year- old, wildly successful architect, with a lovely wife and a pleasant, gay teenage son, is having an affair.
With a goat.
If this were normal farce, it would all be a misunderstanding - there'd be an explanation as to why the hero's pants came to be hanging over the barnyard door, and all would end happily.
But Albee raises the ante, pushing farce into the realm of tragedy. There is glib dialogue here, but no glib explanation: The man is having sex with a goat, and that is not farcical.
I suspect Albee is saying that love, even its specific sexual expression, is a matter of the soul rather than the mechanics of the body. But after he's announced precisely what the play is about in the first few minutes, he hammers the theme home for the rest of the evening.
Then, feeling perhaps that there are still some in the theater he hasn't shocked, scandalized or disgusted, Albee throws in a hint of homosexual incest and the faintest whisper of infantile abuse.
That said, "The Goat" is unquestionably one of the wittiest and funniest plays Albee has ever written - a flawed but truly fascinating play, if at times too slickly abrasive and at least 15 minutes too long.
Even those repelled by the play will have to admit the acting is superlative.
Jeffrey Carlson is aptly ruffled and disturbed as the pleasantly normal gay son, although Stephen Rowe does little for the play's one ungrateful role, as the husband's Judas-like best friend.
But as the husband and wife, Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl, deftly directed by David Esbjornson, are knockouts, and could well be the two to beat at Tony time.
Ruehl is wonderful as always - here, she's as tough as sandpaper - but the surprise here is Pullman, who revs up his performance to dizzy heights of true virtuosity and beguiling honesty.
"The Goat" isn't Broadway's first stab at bestiality. Many years ago, Bamber Gascoigne wrote a very bad play, "Leda Had a Little Swan," which took the verb "to have" in its biblical sense. Luckily, it never took flight on Broadway.
"Goat" is a different beast.
While I don't subscribe to Albee's moral arguments - let alone to love outside one's species - I found the play enthralling, though for the weak of stomach, it could be tough going. You have been warned.
Now hold on a darn minute. Who exactly is supposed to be the author of this play? The same guy who wrote ''Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'' and ''Tiny Alice''? Really? Not the guy who wrote ''The Odd Couple''?
Those who attend ''The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?'' which opened last night at the Golden Theater, may be forgiven for consulting their programs in the show's opening minutes to confirm the name of the playwright. It is indeed Edward Albee.
Nonetheless, that jolly chorus of laughter that keeps rising from the audience has a sound associated with the works of Neil Simon. These are not the uneasy, startled laughs usually elicited by Mr. Albee. No, there's a comfortable, self-congratulatory quality in the air, heard among people who are already in on the punch line of an elaborate joke.
The punch line, as you may know, is implicit in the title. ''The Goat,'' a play that sadly falls short of its high ambitions, is in fact about a man who has fallen in love with a goat.
In the first scene, the unlucky swain (who is named Martin and is portrayed with grave, abstracted sweetness by Bill Pullman) is trying to work up the nerve to reveal this fact to those closest to him.
As directed by David Esbjornson and enacted by a four-member cast that includes the redoubtable Mercedes Ruehl, the double-edged moments of awkwardness and misinterpretation seem to come with their own sitcom laugh track. So does much of the brazen wordplay about sex with animals that follows.
Before Neil Simon fans rush out to buy their tickets, and before Edward Albee fans turn theirs in, they should know that there is devious method in the show's comic glibness. Mr. Albee may be in an unusually frolicsome mood, but he is also in a characteristically brooding one. As one of his barb-spouting characters says when asked to be serious, ''No, it's too serious for that.''
And there you have the core of Mr. Albee's approach. ''The Goat'' is about a profoundly unsettling subject, which for the record is not bestiality but the irrational, confounding and convention-thwarting nature of love. The form this force takes in ''The Goat'' is beyond a joke.
Yet for all their articulateness, the affluent, intelligent people in the play are ill equipped to deal with it as anything but a joke. It's outside the circumference of what Martin's wife, Stevie (Ms. Ruehl), calls ''the rules of the game.'' As usual in Mr. Albee's world, language has its limits in accommodating the ineffable.
As in ''Virginia Woolf,'' flippancy is linked directly to savagery and anguish. Yet ''The Goat,'' at least in this production, never achieves a similar cumulative power. The play may consciously set a trap for its audience, luring it by levity into a dark pit. Yet it keeps retreating to its brighter surface.
''The Goat'' is short (100 minutes, no intermission) and, in terms of story, simple. It is also by Mr. Albee's cryptic standards remarkably straightforward.
Even John Arnone's rendering of Martin and Stevie's high-ceilinged living room has a feeling of brightness and openness, of 1970's-style sterilized suburbia. Of course, there are all those symbolically appropriate primitive artworks that adorn the place and those expensive-looking pots and vases that Ms. Ruehl will symbolically shatter.
Martin, an architect who has just reached the weighted age of 50, is the recent winner of the Pritzker Prize and a contract to design ''the billion-dollar dream city of the future.'' He leads an ostensibly ideal life with Stevie and Billy (Jeffrey Carlson), their gay teenage son. He has even kept the same best friend, Ross (Stephen Rowe), a television producer, since prep school.
It is Ross, in whom Martin unwisely confides, who sets in motion the events that will destroy this family. As written and as portrayed by Mr. Rowe in the unctuous manner of Gig Young in a 1960's sex farce, he is the smug embodiment of liberal hypocrisy. Cheating on your wife is one thing, as Ross sees it; doing it with a goat is another. So he writes a letter to Stevie in which Martin's secret love is laid bare.
Unfortunately, it's impossible to believe in this condemning creep's friendship with Mr. Pullman's reflective, big-hearted Martin, and it diminishes the impact of Martin's betrayal when he learns of Ross's letter. A lack of emotional credibility is a problem throughout. True, there are isolated pockets of intensely depicted pain where you feel as if you're falling into a black hole.
It happens when Ms. Ruehl, an expert at finding the fierceness in facetiousness, suddenly slips from aggressive frivolity into three primal howls. Or when Mr. Pullman's competent, all-American dad sinks into a bewildered, childlike passivity that bespeaks an infinite loneliness.
But as in many of Mr. Albee's plays, the characters are less detailed personalities than archetypes, giving voice to universal conflicts. And Mr. Esbjornson hasn't guided his performers toward a style that would meld their characters' dazzling ways with words and their elemental fears. Mr. Carlson, who plays adolescent angst like Greek tragedy (as adolescents will), probably comes closest to a happy medium.
The semantic quibbles among the characters, while they have a thematic point, can seem juvenile. (When Martin talks about going ''to bed together'' with Sylvia, Stevie shouts, ''To stall together.'') The theatrical in-jokes (like a reference to a prostitute called Large Alice) gratuitously wrench you from the present tense of the play.
More crucially, there is too much repetition of message-hammering speeches and exchanges and too little of the breathless dramatic momentum for which Mr. Albee can usually be relied on, even in a work as baffling as ''Tiny Alice.''
One wishes heartily that Mr. Albee had devoted more time to specific descriptions that would give you a stronger, even stomach-turning sense of Martin's relationship with Sylvia, or describe more vividly the members of the animal lovers' therapy group he attends.
There is a feeling -- and who would ever have thought this could be said of Mr. Albee? -- that ''The Goat'' lacks the courage of its darkest convictions. It may be that the performers' rhythms are thrown off by the friendly hilarity with which the audience greets their one-liners. But there's an abruptness here that suggests punches being pulled.
This is all the more dispiriting because ''The Goat'' includes some of the most potentially powerful scenes in the Albee canon. There are two extraordinary moments toward the end that unsettle as only Mr. Albee can: one involving a kiss and another in which a man is described holding a baby on his lap.
These are moments that force you against your will to reconsider the erotic patterns in your life. Martin poses the evening's basic question: Is there anything anybody doesn't find arousing, ''whether we admit it or not, whether we know it or not?''
Four decades after ''Virginia Woolf'' sent shock waves through the mainstream theater, Mr. Albee still asks questions that no other major American dramatist dares to ask. It's good to have him back on Broadway, even wearing kid gloves.
The great thing about being an internationally celebrated playwright with three Pulitzer Prizes to your credit is that you can pretty much stage a food fight and get critics and audiences to approach it with intellectual curiosity.
With his latest play, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? (* ½ out of four), which opened Sunday at Broadway's Golden Theatre, Edward Albee has accomplished something even more perversely impressive. Albee recently told a reporter that he wrote Goat to test "the limits of tolerance" in theatergoers, musing, "I suppose some people will be offended and enraged."
Others, he might have added, will simply be perplexed and sickened by this self-indulgent mess, in which the cynical, disdainful view of family life that has informed some of Albee's more eloquent works reaches its nauseating nadir.
The marriage that comes under siege in this play is, at first blush, the very model of a happy, healthy modern partnership. After more than two decades together, Martin, a renowned architect who has just turned 50, and Stevie, his witty and devoted wife, remain passionately and comfortably in love. Relaxing in the den of their stylish suburban home — fashioned by scenic designer John Arnone as an elegant refuge filled with books and art — the two seem cozy, playful and engaged in each other's concerns, though not to the point of being co-dependent.
Any shrink would tell you that this couple is too good to be true — and as it turns out, he would be right. For before the first scene is over, we learn that Martin has a dark secret, one that can be gleaned by referring to the play's title and imagining the most obvious worst-case scenario. Goat then degenerates into what is, depending on your perspective, either an awkward, mean-spirited black comedy or an even crueler and pettier reflection on relationships, in which Martin and Stevie's union is reduced to a construct for promoting moral relativism.
Stars Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl deserve praise, and sympathy, for having managed to breathe some life into this construct. Pullman appears too young and guileless for the part of Martin at first, but the actor's earnestness and sweetly hapless edges make the character's crisis more credible and affecting. Ruehl establishes Stevie's earthy persona and handles her unraveling with instinctive comic prowess, and relays an easy warmth that makes some of Albee's nastier flourishes easier to stomach.
Jeffrey Carlson is gamely irksome as the couple's 17-year-old son, Billy, a mincing, glowering creature who becomes a wellspring of convenient metaphorical references to Dad's deviant behavior. Stephen Rowe is more obnoxious still as Martin's oldest friend, whose interaction with his good buddy is so fraught with vague hostility and curious physical tension that one wonders why he doesn't just strangle Martin, or his wife, rather than merely help wreck their marriage.
Granted, through this motley bunch, Albee does succeed in challenging our tolerance. If you can endure 100 minutes of their harried babbling without being tempted to sneak out during a scene transition, you surely deserve some sort of prize yourself.
The laughter comes fast and easy at first. And why not? The play is about a man in love with a goat. Let's not mince words: a man having an affair with a goat. OK, OK -- a man having sex with a goat. The idea is absurd, ridiculous, repellent!
But before long that laughter begins to stick in the throat, and by the end of the latest and possibly most provocative play from the chronically provocative Edward Albee, it has been replaced by something closer to anguish: for a family in tatters, and for the lack of compassion that is at the root of human destructiveness and, one senses uneasily, at the root of so much laughter. But most of all, it is for a man left in isolation, the goat-lover it has been so fun to laugh at, who is played by Bill Pullman in a performance as brave and fine and unflinching as this remarkable play itself.
On one level, "The Goat" is Albee's perversely funny sendup of a standard mid-life crisis drama. Pullman's Martin is an architect whose fabulous success is rather plainly put before us in exposition referring to his Pritzker Prize and his latest multibillion-dollar project. He and his loving wife Stevie (Mercedes Ruehl) reside in a stylishly appointed home, the living room full of Eames chairs and art books aptly assembled by set designer John Arnone. Their rapport is witty and easygoing, entirely intimate, and even the homosexuality of their single son Billy (Jeffrey Carlson) is treated as a kind of chic artifact, accepted with a hearty kind of enthusiasm that belies just a little unease.
The silken tableau could be a spread from Architectural Digest come to life. It represents the kind of life that's traditionally upended, on stage and screen and indeed in life, by the standard infidelities: the other woman, the other man. And Martin's nauseated smile and the furtive, culpable look in his eyes point toward this familiar fly in the ointment, which is hinted at in chipper comic interplay between spouses: a moment of mock-Noel Coward melodrama in which Martin suddenly confesses he's in love with someone named Sylvia. "Who is Sylvia?" Stevie grandly intones. "She's a goat," he replies. Ha ha!
As in many Albee plays, this tight nuclear unit has a satellite in the form of a best friend, Ross (Stephen Rowe), to whom Martin soon confesses more sincerely. Ross is, of course, appalled; he writes to Stevie; soon the dung has hit the fan, if you will. The play's centerpiece is a long, volatile confrontation between a sad and sheepish (forgive!) Martin and a bewildered and enraged Stevie, whom Ruehl plays with captivating wit and ferocity.
Albee's writing, though funny and ever-eloquent, is less oblique than usual here -- this is not an allegory shrouded in abstract settings and stylized language, he insists, and David Esbjornson's crystal-clear direction accentuates its actuality. It is not a play about a man in love with a metaphor but with a real goat, which we will ultimately see onstage.
The characters, too, are so specific in their speech that they often interrupt their emotional combat to give credit for a pretty turn of phrase or excuse an inappropriate locution ("Women in deep woe often mix their metaphors," Stevie says at one bleak moment). But there is a mournful undertow to their articulateness: Words are in the end a paltry way to describe the revolutions of the soul and the peculiar perversities the heart is capable of. As Martin attempts with increasing desperation to describe his predicament, Stevie only grows more enraged.
Well, who can blame her? Certainly not the audience, which delights in Stevie's blazingly sarcastic retorts to Martin's stammering efforts to describe his experience. She rattles and rages and greets his pleas for calm with witheringly funny ripostes. To Martin's protestation that he loves her, Stevie says, "But I'm a human being. I have only two breasts. I walk upright. I give milk only on special occasions. You love me? I don't understand." She cries, too, tears of confusion and fury.
"You've broken something and it can't be fixed," she says bitterly, but it's hard not to notice that she's the one smashing crockery and upending the furniture. And the quiet sincerity of Martin, who recognizes the absurdity of his situation but also insists on its gravity, soon begins to work strangely on our sympathy. The cruelty in Stevie's shrill attacks is in stark opposition to Martin's wounded pleas ("Don't mock me") and tender descriptions of his "epiphany" with Sylvia. Albee has described the play as "testing the tolerance of the audience" -- another way of saying that it tests the audience's empathy.
It's impossible to overpraise Pullman's work: Not for a second does he sell his character's soul for an easy laugh by betraying the truth of Martin's feeling. The humanity of this performance is really a marvel to behold -- forget the Tony (or don't), Pullman deserves some sort of medal of honor for the simple conviction he brings to speeches that are liable to set the audience squirming when they're not snorting (descriptions of a bestiality support group, for one). Pullman remains fiercely loyal to the dignity of his character, and his performance is integral to the play's effectiveness.
In the play's last scene, Ross reappears to witness a moment of complex intimacy between father and son, as Albee dares to probe even more deeply into the confusing intersections of love and sexuality -- the moments when the forces of affection and need lead people to lose their bearings and tumble into strange behavior.
This is not just flashy envelope-pushing, either, but an extension of the play's explorations into the darker corners of human sexuality. Ross' sneering disgust ("Sick, sick, sick") is maybe a bit overplayed, but it's the kind of reaction many people have to behavior they regard as aberrant or abnormal. As Martin says, "Is there anything 'we people' don't get off on? Is there anything someone doesn't get off on, whether we admit it or not -- whether we know it or not?"
Martin's love for the goat does ultimately take on a more than literal significance. It stands for the secret failings, weaknesses, losses of way, moments of shame, embarrassing indulgences that mark every life and are usually carefully guarded from the scorn of public exposure. Driven to seek understanding for his, Martin meets only rage and ridicule: "I am alone … all alone," he cries in the play's harrowing last moments.
"The Goat" dares to suggest that even the most flawed and confused human beings deserve compassionate understanding, and the failure to proffer it is a species of bestiality far more abhorrent than the sexual kind.