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The Heartbreak Kid

Taboos are shattered in a complex and engaging production

Bruce R. Nelson and emily townley find themselves on the horns of a dilemma.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 6/9/2010

The Goat Or, Who Is Sylvia?

At Rep Stage through June 27

Stevie has just received a letter informing her that her husband is having an affair with someone named Sylvia. Stevie isn't happy about this, but she believes that after 22 years of marriage and 17 years of raising their son Billy together, she and Martin can weather this crisis. After all, they're urbane, well-educated New Yorkers.

Then she reads the kicker: Sylvia is a goat. Not a metaphoric goat, but a real, cloven-hoofed animal.

Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia is a reminder that no matter how sophisticated we think we are, there's always something that can still shock us. He has taken the all-too-familiar one-set, four-character play about a marriage in crisis and nudged it in the direction of absurdist satire. But not all the way; having put Stevie in a bizarre situation, he allows her to respond realistically. The playwright walks the fence between Eugène Ionesco and Arthur Miller with acrobatic agility, providing not just the shock and humor of the unimaginable, but also the recognizable emotions of real people caught in such a situation. It's a script that well deserved its 2002 Tony Award for Best Play.

In the new production at Rep Stage, Stevie (Emily Townley) sits in a black sequined blouse on a dark-brown Scandinavian couch in the marble-floored living room designed by Martin (Bruce R. Nelson). When she describes her first reactions to reading the letter, she might as well be describing the audience's reaction to the play.

Like Albee's most famous play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Goat begins with jokes and ends in horror. Unlike the earlier show, where a married couple destroyed each other out of mutual antipathy, the couple in The Goat destroy each other out of shared love. Before they finish each other off, though, the jokes are good. Stevie and Martin both love language, and even in the middle of their most vitriolic fights they compliment each other on a pun or allusion. "Why do you call her Sylvia, by the way?" Stevie asks. "Did she have a tag or something? Or was it more: Who is Sylvia, fair is she that all our goats commend her?" "No," Martin replies, "it just seemed right. Very good, by the way."

In an early scene, Ross (Steven Carpenter), the host of a 60 Minutes-like TV show, has come to interview Martin, who has just won architecture's premier award, the Pritzker Prize. After the interview, because they're old school friends, Martin blurts out that he's been having sex with a goat. Ross is so appalled that he breaks his vow of secrecy and writes the letter to Stevie, who promptly shares it with her son Billy (Travis Hudson). Martin doesn't even try to deny it; in fact, he argues that it's a case of true love, of an ecstatic bond between experience and innocence.

That's not an easy case to make, obviously, but director Kasi Campbell is fortunate to have one of the Mid-Atlantic area's best actors in the role. With his salt-and-pepper beard, pale-blue shirt, and rubbery frame, Nelson makes Martin the very model of a modern major artist--whimsical and distracted, sensitive and irresponsible. Nelson's Martin is so smart and charming that he easily deflects Stevie's initial parries, but she won't let up, and as she bores in on him, he seems to melt into the couch, his voice catching and his limbs trembling as it slowly dawns on him how incompatible his genuine love for his wife is with his genuine love for his goat.

Townley is too young for the part of Stevie, who should be in her late 40s, but she does hold her own with Nelson. When, after the secret is out, Martin asks Stevie why she isn't crying, she says, "This is too serious," and Townley makes you see the tears she's saving for later, because her fury has overridden everything. And when she starts smashing paintings, dishes, and vases on stage (pity the poor prop person), we cringe as much as Nelson.

The result is one of the best theater productions in Maryland since 2008's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at CenterStage. When Ross's mistresses and prostitutes and Billy's homosexuality are stirred into the mix, we are forced to consider which taboos are valid and which ones aren't. And when Stevie tilts her head over the back of the couch and emits a howl of utter despair, we are forced to contemplate the unimaginable surprises that can thrust themselves into the most comfortable of lives.

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