No Kidding, or What's It All About, Albee?

Despite what you may have heard, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? is not a play about bestiality. The subject hovers over the story, but goat-fucking is more an allegory than a theme. Playwright Edward Albee is concerned here with the boundaries for "decent" human behavior; about how we decide what is and isn't acceptable; and how quickly lives can come undone when one takes a "wrong" turn.

Which isn't to say that there isn't a goat in this play with whom -- with which, I mean -- someone is having sex. That someone is Martin, a man who has everything: a beautiful home; a lovely wife; an amazing career; a gay son. He also has a mistress, the goat of the title. Which he confides to his best friend, Ross, who then tattles to Stevie, Martin's wife, who tells her son. The confrontation between Martin and Stevie is the heart of the play, and everything else -- the social commentary, the deep humor, the gorgeous language -- is the framework.

Marshall Mason's impeccable direction allows the theatricality -- so crucial to an Albee play -- to shine, but also features the subtler shading of these characters, whose circumstances are so unusual that they threaten to teeter into caricature. Still, the absurd reigns: There's the fact that Martin, a successful New York architect, has just been awarded a contract to design a $200 billion city in the wheat fields of the Midwest; his description of a Bestiality Anonymous meeting; the not infrequent acknowledgement by Martin or Stevie of an especially well-performed dramatic scene by one of the other players.

Albee's is a wildly conflicting combination of comedy (because, really, sex with animals is funny) and a darker undercurrent that draws more uncomfortable laughter from the audience (because we're imagining the specifics of animal sex -- it's probably best that The Goat, which won the 2002 Tony for Best Play, is a one-act, so that bolting for the exit at intermission isn't an option for the squeamish).

This is a story peppered with relevant literary references: to Arthur Kopit's Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad; to Noel Coward (in the effete dialogue tossed off jokingly between the husband and wife at the top of the story); to Aristotle's Unities; even to the form of Greek tragedy with the play's subject (the fall of a great man) and its title (because in ancient times, tragoidia was a song sung for the prize or sacrifice of a goat).

Mason brings a sense of reality to this amalgam of high and low comedy, of highbrow literary allusions and barnyard humor, turning subject matter that seems unbelievable into something quite plausible. I found myself sympathizing with Martin, the goat fucker, because Mason gave Albee's gorgeous writing about the purity of true love as much room on stage as the playwright's many funny bits about screwing livestock.

Randy Noojin's fine performance as Martin helped, of course. Would that Karen S. Gregan, as Stevie, had kept up. Her low-energy performance at the Sunday matinee I attended matched neither Noojin's nor Steven Ackley's wide-ranging turn as their son, Billy (whose name is almost certainly another goat joke). Still, I'm convinced that even with an entire cast of subpar performances, I'd have left the theater stunned by The Goat, which in the end is a thoughtful meditation on tolerance, and not so much about the love that dare not bleat its name.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela