Playwright: Edward Albee
At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Phone: (312) 443-5151; $30-$55
Runs through: Nov. 2
For those of you seeking a ripping good yarn about beastiality (and who among us isn't?), look no further, as the Goodman offers up the crown of its Edward Albee Festival, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia, Albee's 2002 Tony Award-winning play.
Stevie (Barbara Robertson) and Martin (Patrick Clear) seem to have it all. Martin, just turned 50, has just won the coveted Pritzker Prize for architecture and has been commissioned to design an entire model city. Stevie is intelligent, supportive, and has grown comfortable in a life of relative urban luxury. Their son, Billy (Michael Stahl-David) goes to a good private school and is comfortable with his coming out as a gay teenager. But it wouldn't be an Albee play if something didn't intrude on this nearly perfect portrait of domestic bliss. Early in the play, Stevie says, 'The sense that everything's going right is a sure sense that everything's going wrong.'
And those unfamiliar with the premise behind the play will be shocked at just how far wrong things have already gone when the blissfully ignorant Stevie utters those prophetic words. Martin, it seems, has taken himself a mistress, the titular Sylvia. Problem is, Sylvia is a goat. Martin confesses his 'affair,' which has already been going on for six months when the play begins, to his best friend, Ross (William Dick), who is suitably aghast. Like Ross, we in the audience at first wonder what the joke is and, like Ross, wait for the punch line. But none comes. Martin is actually engaging in a full-bore physical relationship with … livestock.
No one else but Albee could combine the shocking and surreal in such a convincingly dramatic way. Once Stevie discovers her husband's infidelity (and the unusual object of his affection) through a letter from Ross, Albee begins peeling away the layers of complacency and comfort to expose raw emotion, calling into question serious issues such as the power and uncontrollability of love, infidelity, and family ties. Along the way, there are a lot of laughs, although one wonders if they are of the truly mirthful variety or arising out of a giddy discomfort. But the play rapidly swirls down to the tragic, and we watch as an enraged, confused, and pained Stevie (a bravura turn by Robertson) shatters years of art objects cluttering the couple's smart, upscale home. The smashing is a metaphor for how this odd set of circumstances is undermining their very love for one another. Stevie tells Martin (and us) that one prepares for the customary jolts of life, such as infidelity and death, but beastiality is not one of them. 'Well, I wonder when he'll start cruising livestock.' That line, with Robertson's impeccable delivery and comic timing, elicits laughter, but later when she asks, 'How can you love me when you love so much less?' we are chilled and pulled into the plight of someone watching everything they once thought solid disintegrate before their eyes.
This is an uncomfortable play, but the most amazing thing is not found in its outrageous subject matter, but what is universal and real lurking within its subtext. For those of us who have reached a certain age, the pains and problems here are not so hard to get a hold on. Who hasn't experienced a flash of inappropriate desire? Who hasn't realized that the pull of love can be a strong and irresistible force, beyond any program? And who hasn't been hurt by the one we love most? In the end, the goat becomes immaterial, an extreme device through which we can examine our own lives and experiences with love. And therein lies the challenge—and the heart—of this brilliant work.