By Richard Ades
What’s a guy to do?
Martin Gray loves his wife and has been faithful to her throughout their marriage. Then, during a visit to the countryside, he meets and instantly falls for a beautiful, sweet-natured female—a female who just happens to be a goat.
D’oh! Or rather: Doe!
In The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?, esteemed playwright Edward Albee charges headfirst into the prickly topic of bestiality, and he doesn’t exactly handle it with kid gloves. Instead, he uses Martin’s predicament to question traditional concepts of love and morality.
Yes, Albee holds Martin up to some degree of satirical ridicule, but not because a barnyard creature has turned the architect into a bleating-heart liberal on the topic of interspecies romance. No, it’s Martin’s personality that makes him the butt of Albee’s jokes.
Martin (Tim Browning)—like wife Stevie (Sonda Staley) and, to a lesser extent, son Billy (Jesse Massaro)—is depicted as a superficial intellectual. He’s so enraptured by his own cleverness that he periodically interrupts even the fiercest argument to compliment a particularly apt comment or to question a grammatical choice.
Another early source of humor is Martin’s self-admitted forgetfulness. Apparently distracted by his secret affair with a four-legged lover, he simply can’t hold onto the threads of conversations with either his wife or his best friend, Ross (Todd Covert).
Is The Goat a comedy? That seems to be Albee’s goal at first, but later it hops the fence into the realm of tragedy as Martin’s new love places him on the horns of a marital dilemma.
At any rate, it’s not a gut-busting comedy, seldom generating more than the occasional chuckle in Red Herring’s current production. The main problem is that Albee tries to milk Martin’s forgetfulness for so many laughs that few materialize.
Then again, neither is it a great tragedy, unless you relate to Martin’s quandary—and unless you find the ending far more shocking than I did. Though I’m far from prescient, I saw it trotting my way from a mile off.
Working under Michael Herring’s direction, the actors generally play their characters naturalistically, though sometimes with a tinge of satirical exaggeration. Personally, I found Staley and Massaro the most convincing, but that’s partly because their characters are the most relatable for those of us who haven’t gone looking for love in the nearest stall. Stevie and Billy greet the news of Martin’s bucolic canoodling with understandable fury and disbelief.
As for Browning, he plays Martin as a man so obsessed by his bearded lover that he’s basically sleepwalking through life. That’s an appropriate interpretation, but I still don’t get the character. It might help if Albee had allowed Martin to go into more detail about the moment he first fell in love with a creature whose greatest joy comes from licking the glue off tin cans.
But he doesn’t, because Albee is more interested in fomenting an audience reaction than he is in an actual interspecies relationship. Before the play is over, he’s brought up such equally scandalous topics as incest and sexual attraction toward an infant.
Most provocatively of all, he has Martin attack his son’s homosexuality, as if that were somehow analogous to his own love for Sylvia. No, huh-uh. There’s no analogy between the two, despite what fear-mongering opponents of gay marriage might tell you. Consenting adults can do whatever they want, but farm animals can never be said to have free will.
Herring’s set design of the Grays’ home is modern and avant-garde, which seems fitting. On opening night, however, individual pieces had problems: a pedestal nearly falling over, a chair partially coming apart, two vases falling off shelves seemingly of their own volition. Though these appeared to be accidents, I couldn’t help wondering whether Herring meant for at least some of them to happen as symbols of the Gray family’s precarious equilibrium.
Another production oddity: Though the play was designed to be performed in one act, Red Herring adds an intermission about 35 minutes in. It serves no obvious function, as it follows a dramatic development that will come as no surprise to 99 percent of the audience.
Will the Gray family survive Martin’s barnyard dalliance? It seems that Albee wants us to care whether they do, but truthfully, I didn’t. Though parts of it are entertaining, the play as a whole is hard to take seriously.
Yes, it won a Tony (in 2002, for best play), but it’s disappointingly shallow, especially coming from the man who gave us theater’s greatest marital spat of all time: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Other than their author and the titular question marks, the two works could not be more different.
Red Herring Theatre will present The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? through Oct. 10 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20 in advance, pay what you want at the door. 614-723-9116 or redherring.info.