Edward Albee has little patience for attempts to unravel his notoriously knotty plays. “I tend to become uncooperative—and occasionally downright hostile—when people ask me what my plays ‘are about,’ he wrote in a letter addressed to the audience of one of his more recent productions. Though Albee wasn’t talking specifically about The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?—his 2002 Tony-Award-winner, which opened last week at Columbia’s Rep Stage—he has undoubtedly fielded frequent requests over the years to shed light on that play’s “deeper meaning.”
At least on the surface, The Goat features one of Albee’s more straightforward plots. He establishes the central problem in the first ten minutes (if you haven’t already guessed from the title). A middle-aged woman, Stevie, jokingly asks her adoring husband, Martin, if he has been having an affair. Yes, Martin confesses: Her name is Sylvia. “Who is Sylvia?” Stevie inquires, still laughing. “A goat,” comes the shattering reply. The remainder of the play traces the fallout—by turns hilarious and heart-breaking—of this revelation. Director Kasi Campbell and her excellent cast at Rep Stage hit all the right notes, yet the final blackout still left me wondering (to the disdain of the writer, I’m sure): “Yes, but Mr. Albee, what is your play really about?”
Part of me thinks The Goat is a parody of “middle class” morality. There are plenty of laughs, along with an especially self-deluding hypocrite. (Not Martin, whom Albee treats with a courageous degree of sympathy, but his insufferable best friend, Ross, whose behavior suggest he approves of infidelity so long as the object of the man’s lust walks on two legs, not four). Yet by play’s end the characters have all suffered too greatly for such a glib interpretation.
Another part of me thinks Albee is satirizing right-wing intolerance toward homosexuals—it was only a year after The Goat opened on Broadway that then-senator Rick Santorum lumped together same-sex marriage and bestiality. Albee—who is gay himself—gives a prominent role to Stevie and Martin’s teenaged son, Billy, whose journey out of the closet becomes infinitely more difficult in the wake of his father’s perverseness. Martin’s defense of his actions is so heartfelt, and Albee’s skill so formidable, one finds oneself dangerously tempted to agree—is it so far-fetched that a respectable, intelligent, by all accounts decent man could fall in love with a goat? Then Stevie reminds us exactly what Martin has betrayed and what he continues to betray with each rationalization—not mere standards of decency but the love and faith of his life partner. No proponent of tolerance, let alone sexual freedom, could argue against her anguished cries.
There is also a part of me that wonders whether Albee is just messing with us—how it must tickle him to hear us try to make sense of the incomprehensible! The visceral horror of seeing this beautiful family destroyed is profounder than volumes of critical analysis. Experienced in this light, The Goat resembles nothing so much as modern-day Greek tragedy, with the sacrificial goat written into the drama. In an instant Martin throws away his charmed existence, and Stevie’s vengeance is swift … and devastating.
That these emotions are as poignant at Rep Stage as they were on Broadway is a testament to Campbell’s work with a magnificent quartet of actors. As Stevie and Martin, Emily Townley and Bruce R. Nelson are flawless. Like every Albee couple since George and Martha, they delight in word games and verbal sparring (“Very good” is a common—if overused—household phrase), only Stevie and Martin are those rare lovers who seem genuinely delighted by each other’s company. For them, teasing is an extension of lovemaking.