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Kid 'N' Play

The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name Has Nothing On The Affair In Albee's Latest American Autopsy

GETTING HIS GOAT: Michael Sullivan turns his back on Vickie Margolis.

By John Barry | Posted 10/11/2006

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?

By Edward Albee

At Mobtown Theater through Oct. 21

Ever since Zoo Story, Edward Albee's characters have engaged in bizarrely complex love affairs with animals. Jerry, in Zoo Story (1959), finds the love of his life in a stray dog--which he winds up poisoning. And Tobias of A Delicate Balance ('66) winds up putting his cat to death. Now in the Mobtown Players' capable production of Albee's latest, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, 50-year-old Martin (Michael Sullivan) gets down on the farm and takes that zoophilia about as far as it can go. The goat doesn't get off easily, either.

Albee often has been criticized for leaving the real action offstage. With The Goat, you can't blame him. In fact, the less you think about the story's central plot enabler, the better. The problem is that once the bomb is dropped, characters can't avoid thinking--or talking--about the unthinkable. But language fails them.

Whenever Albee opens with a presumably happy, middle aged WASPy couple in their pristine, middle-class living room, that should set off a warning signal. Martin is a prize-winning architect who has just nabbed a commission to design a modern city in the middle of the grasslands. His day job is irrelevant, though: What Albee means is that he's a successful, likable guy with brains. His wife, Stevie (Vickie Margolis), is his perfect foil, a liberal, down-to-earth, highly intelligent housewife and sidekick.

For a moment, it appears that the play will revolve around incipient Alzheimer's, because Martin can't remember the names of his friends or wife. But he's actually a little distracted. Soon, you find out why. Stevie asks him what the problem is. He tells her he's having an affair with a goat, but, of course, she thinks he's joking. His best friend, Ross (Mark Squirek), comes over to film an interview to celebrate his recent architecture award. He tells Ross that he's having an affair. Ross eagerly solicits the details. Then Martin drops the bomb. He is sleeping with a goat. In the play's second half, his wife and gay teenage son Billy (Michael Coene) are let in on the secret.

The challenge The Goat presents to the actors is fairly evident. What happens when the unthinkable has been let out into the open--or, as Stevie astutely puts it, what do you do when you have already jumped off a building? There's not much you can say about bestiality--there aren't that many dimensions to it, and there aren't any fine lines about forced and unforced sex. Basically, either you're fucking farm animals or you aren't. They squeal like pigs because they are pigs.

Albee uses this twisted premise to fan the flames of a modified Greek tragedy. In the first half, we learn of Martin's fatal flaw. Once the laughter stops, the significance seeps in. And the theme that pours forth is trademark Albee: man is lonely and incapable of communicating love, and when he does he is tragically destructive. It's the old standby--alienation. And although Albee tries as hard as he can to keep on top of the 21st century, and does that pretty well for a playwright in his late 70s, there's something a little dated about alienation. It's just not news anymore.

Mobtown Players manages to tread this minefield with a confident comic touch. First, the Mobtown actors all look very comfortable with their roles--even when Albee has not done much to define them. Martin, at the play's center, is the prime mover, and Sullivan keeps him sane--and sometimes very funny--by injecting an understated stoicism. He's at his best when Martin is starting to leak the truth to his best friend. Squirek delivers an excellent performance as Ross, giving him a vulnerable Ralph Cramden-esque sensibility. As Stevie, Margolis feels perfect for the role--her character has an earthiness that takes the couple beyond the suburban cliché.

Everyone manages to negotiate the gradual implosion delicately, especially in the first act. The play's problems, though, may have to do with Albee in general. Although Albee considers himself a dramatist who explores the American middle class, he hates it with a strange passion. He has a sharp eye for language but, somehow, feels the need to smash everything to pieces at the end. That certainly got Albee the attention he needed when he burst on the scene 40 years ago--didn't the Who start about then, too?--but it gets old.

What salvages things is the one really interesting relationship in the story: between Billy and his father. Billy's two liberal parents have, apparently, been fine with his homosexuality. But it doesn't take much to rock their boat--there are obviously things going on in Billy's life that the parents wonder about. The fact that Martin gets outed here, after doing something more offbeat, suddenly puts that dynamic in a new focus. In a subtle performance, Coene turns Billy into an earnest, if clearly gay, young man, who is just borderline enough to make his parents wonder if he's going to "go straight." He's the one character who the playwright doesn't leave smashed on the living-room floor, and it may be because he's the only one Albee really liked.

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