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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the April 3, 2002

edition of

U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

On Broadway: Albee’s `The Goat’

The idea that a man could not only be in love with

a goat, but also be having an intimate relationship with it, may not

sound like a situation to spark serious dramatic inquiry. But in

Edward

Albee’s newest play, "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?," a happily

married man’s romantic obsession with a goat does indeed provide the

basis for one of the renowned playwright’s most profound and

provocative

plays. Don’t be put off by the dramatic set-up: as you might guess,

it’s both a metaphor and an actuality — one that will haunt and

taunt you long after you have left the theater.

While Albee brilliantly uses this device to explore the nature and

the naturalness of love, he also uses it to make us see how difficult

it is for most people to offer non-judgmental compassion and

understanding.

In this play, firmly directed by David Esbjornson (who last season

directed Albee’s more enigmatic "Play About the Baby"), a

well-off, wittily communicative American family that appears to have

the intelligence, savvy, and grace to confront almost any dilemma,

is given a resounding jolt. It is sadly, but not surprisingly, one

they are not equipped to control or handle. Rest assured that this

is one Albee play that we can handle without trying to decipher veiled

abstractions or oblique relationships.

The beginning of the play is so graced with easy-going,

laughter-provoking

dialogue that it puts us off-guard. It is as if Albee were trying

his hand at a Neil Simon comedy — and to great effect. Yet the

play is so tightly and cleverly constructed that its sudden downward

dramatic spiral gets us in its grip and doesn’t let go until the final

and stunning curtain. We watch spellbound as a family is gradually

and tragically torn apart, bit by bit, by their disbelief and their

inability to perceive what they have not known, are unprepared for,

nor are willing to comprehend.

Notwithstanding the allusion to Shakespeare’s ode to love in the title

"Who is Sylvia?," the play also brings to mind the scene in

"A Midsummer Night’s Dream" in which the sleeping fairy queen,

her eyes anointed with the love-inducing juice of a flower, falls

madly in love with the first creature she sees upon awakening —

an ass.

When Martin (Bill Pullman), a successful, happily married architect,

admits he is in love with a goat that he met while on a drive in the

country, it sets off a family confrontation that sends him into a

dark and fearsome abyss. Martin’s disclosure of his affair with

"Sylvia"

(as he has fondly named the goat) is prompted by the misguided

decision

of his best friend Ross (Stephen Rowe). Ross, in a way that proves

cruelly insensitive, figuratively "lets the goat out of the

bag."

Following Ross’s breach of confidence, it is Martin’s brave decision

to be honest about his feelings for the goat that sends shock waves

through his family. Of course, Martin’s nonplused wife Stevie

(Mercedes

Ruehl), whose suspension of disbelief is characterized by a flair

for the acerbic retort, and his teenage son Billy (Jeffrey Carlson)

are asked to conform and respond to his affair with the same and

predictable

dismay and outrage that any family would when confronted with a

spouse’s

infidelity.

As sophisticated and mature adults, Martin and Stevie

have certainly demonstrated that they can take Billy’s homosexuality

in stride, or at least, with a casually cool matter-of-factness that

ironically, belies the current crisis. But neither Stevie nor Billy

are prepared for Martin’s jolting, yet unwittingly reactionary,

mid-life

crisis. Within designer John Arnone’s architecturally spacious and

handsome living room, undoubtedly the enlightened vision of its

master,

Martin’s deliberate attempt to maintain a sense of order and

rationality

is met with Stevie’s unbridled rage, at first seething but contained,

then scathing, erupting in volcanic bursts of physical fury.

Pullman, who is more notable for his film career ("Independence

Day," "While You Were Sleeping," "The Accidental

Tourist")

than his appearances on Broadway, is riveting as the husband who,

though tormented and tortured by what he knows cannot be easily

resolved,

is increasingly aware that he may face his future quite alone. While

Ruehl, who won a Tony for her leading role as the mentally challenged

aunt in "Lost in Yonkers," ferociously deconstructs the once

taut and tidy relationship she can no longer either stomach or fathom,

she finds herself fighting back the only way she knows, through

vitriol

and revenge.

Carlson, who played Romeo so memorably last fall at McCarter Theater,

is making an impressive Broadway debut as Billy, a volatile young

man who has come to terms with his own sexuality. Distraught at

witnessing

the disintegration of his parents’ marriage, Billy’s attempt to be

demonstrative in his love for his father is misunderstood when Ross

comes into the living room during a moment of notable tenderness

between

father and son, a scene defined by its poignancy. Although we hate

Ross for what he has unleashed, Stephen Rowe is effective as a friend

whose deeds are neither friendly nor forgivable.

Never afraid to explore human sexuality, or to test our willingness

to extend the boundaries of our own preconceived notions on just about

anything and everything, Albee has, with this play, invited us to

challenge those who are quick to condemn as well as to compassionately

consider those who dare. "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia" is a

play that boldly considers the many ways we abuse, disdain, demean,

humiliate, and destroy those we love and the things we don’t

understand

— all in the name of love. Yet (and yes), without any bleating,

this is a literal and stunning love story of a man and a goat. This

is one of Albee’s best, and one to be reckoned with at Tony Award

time. Four stars. Don’t miss.

— Simon Saltzman

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia, Golden Theater, 252 West 45

Street, New York. $65 & $75. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or

212-239-6200 .


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