Albee's 'Goat' Breaks Theater Sex Taboo

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  March 13, 2002 at 1:46 PM
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NEW YORK, March 13 (UPI) -- Edward Albee's new play on Broadway, "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?" breaks the theater's last taboo, the subject of sex between humans and animals.

The play at the Golden Theater is about a happily married man who falls in love (not lust, he insists) with a goat named Sylvia, triggering the breakup of his family. Not only does Albee expose one of the least explored areas of man's sexuality, he plays it for laughs.

Albee, who turned 74 yesterday, is one of America's most famous and enduring theatrical talents, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes for drama, and he also is no fool. He figured out that laughter was the only way that bestiality, still a Hollywood and television taboo, could be made palatable to a theater-going public generally considered more sophisticated than most audiences.

"I think there is one thing I'm doing with this play," Albee is quoted in a Playbill interview. "I'm testing the limits of tolerance of the audience."

There was a time - and not too long ago - that "The Goat" would have been denounced from the city's pulpits and in newspaper editorials and excoriated by an easily shocked mayor and his Decency Commission. But it hasn't even registered as a minor temblor on the Broadway sensation scale - yet.

Albee says he expects some people to be "offended and enraged" by "The Goat." Playgoers are left to accept the play on its own terms, as a valiant attempt to shed light on one of the more depraved aspects of human nature or something so offensive it should be avoided. With its morally squeamish theme and unending refrain of gutter language, it is not a play for the faint of heart.

The chap smitten by Sylvia (a reference to Shakespeare's song, "Who is Sylvia?," from "Two Gentleman of Verona") is a 50-year-old architect named Martin who has won the prestigious Pritzger Prize and a commission to design a $27 million "World City" in a Kansas wheat field.

He is married to Stevie, the only girl he ever loved and to whom he has been faithful throughout their marriage - until he locked eyes with Sylvia on a foray into the country to look at real estate for a weekend retreat. Repeated trysts with his inamorata against his better judgment has driven Martin, a decent sort of fellow, to therapy sessions with other men and women engaged in bestiality.

He hopes to keep his bizarre passion a secret, but his closest friend, Ross, who is interviewing him for a TV show titled "People Who Count," wheedles the story out of him. Ross repeats it to Stevie in a busybody letter written to warn her that her marriage may be in jeopardy. Once Martin's wife knows the truth, their teen-age homosexual son, Billy, also gets wind of his father's transgression.

Stevie doesn't take the situation lightly. She lashes into Martin in an exhausting monologue that almost matches Martha's vitriolic attack on George in Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and smashes up a lot of expensive primitive art pottery with which their sleekly modern suburban living room is decorated. Billy is almost as hysterical.

Martin and Billy are finally reconciled with a kiss that raises the specter, quickly exorcised, of incest, but as the curtain falls Martin and Stevie are still facing some sort of accommodation after Stevie dramatically removes Sylvia from Martin's Noel Cowardish design for living.

It's a weak ending for an 100-minute, intermissionless play that needs every ounce of strength it can get after reducing an audience's original hilarious laughter to occasional forced and gleeless chuckles as comedy edges into tragedy.

Bill Pullman, best known for his work in films, is almost believable as a loving husband and father who is drawn into a relationship with which he cannot cope but cannot give up. It is a sweet performance, nicely contrasted to the taught, sharp-tongued characterization of Stevie by the formidable Tony Award-winning actress Mercedes Ruehl. She always delivers an over-the-top performance, and this is one of her best.

Stephen Rowe plays Ross in such a smug, less-than-sensitive manner that one wonders why Martin has kept up his friendship with him since their boarding school days, but this may be a fault of direction. Jeffrey Carlson makes a good impression in his Broadway debut in the role of Billy, even though Albee has made him a one-note character who is tiresome at best.

Veteran and versatile director David Esbjornson, who directed Albee's "The Play About the Baby" last season, has done his best in a difficult assignment. Scenic designer John Arnone has created a set so attractive and airily lit by Kenneth Posner that almost anyone would want to move in immediately. Elizabeth Hope Clancy's costumes are contemporarily hip and unobtrusive.

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