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The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? | St. Louis Actors Studio

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play sylvia_75Edward Albee presents us with the unthinkable: a sympathetic character involved in bestiality under the guise of “love.”

 

play sylvia

I’d seen The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? before, but when it was time to think about a review, I found my mind wandering in the direction of Woody Allen. Remember his justification for cheating on his longtime lover, Mia Farrow, with their 17-year-old adopted daughter? He paraphrased Pascal in a press conference, saying simply and unapologetically, “The heart wants what the heart wants.” It seems that Edward Albee may be examining that concept by taking it to extremes in this morality play about a man who, after 22 years of faithful marriage, falls in love with a goat he calls Sylvia (a suitably pastoral name).

By all outward appearances, Martin (John Pierson) and Stevie (Nancy Bell) do lead a charmed life. They have remained as much in love as they were when they got married. They have an 18-year-old son, Billy (Scott Anthony Joy), who is smart and funny, like they are. Martin has recently turned 50, and is at the peak of a distinguished career in architecture as evidenced by his receiving an important national commission to build a $200 billion “city of the future” in the Midwest, and has become the youngest ever recipient of the Pritzger Prize, the highest honor architects can receive. We learn of his eminence during an interview his longtime best friend, Ross (William Roth), conducts for his program “People Who Matter.” However, the interview has to be aborted because of Martin’s preoccupation with something, and Ross prods him into talking about it.

Better he had not. Ross has already demonstrated his flip cluelessness when he tells Martin that his gay son is going through a phase and will get over it. He also doesn’t keep a secret very well, as we are soon to learn. But he gradually draws the painful truth out of Martin: He is in love with a goat he met while scouting for a country home. The affair has gone on for six months, and Martin has been literally driven to distraction by it. He can’t remember simple things, and even jokes to Stevie about having Alzheimer’s disease. He and Stevie kid around (poor word choice?) a lot, in a sophisticated, Noel Coward sort of way. Before Ross arrives on this day, he has, in fact, “joked” with her about his mistress, the goat. After Ross arrives, Stevie leaves, tossing back a one-liner about “getting my hair done and stopping at the feed store.”

Stevie is a problematic character, in that Albee didn’t give her anything to do, no profession to distract her from her personal life. Perhaps this is an intentional device to make sure we see that Stevie’s life is this marriage, and if it collapses, she has nothing. She is beautiful and well put together in a couple of dresses that have geometric designs, almost integrating her into the clean lines of her apartment, as imagined by scenic and lighting designer Patrick Huber. In a way, she is as organic to her surroundings as Sylvia is to the barnyard. As dreadful as it sounds, Stevie and Sylvia may actually be on something of a level playing field.

Ross, that coward, writes her a letter telling her what Martin is doing, and then the sparks fly. Bell acts the hell out of Nancy, going from Amanda in Present Laughter (she and Martin don’t just imitate Noel Coward humor, they live it) to Lady Macbeth, wild-eyed and frightening in the end. Martin’s arc is less dramatic but no less painful to watch, as he sees his life crumble around him, knowing he caused the destruction (an interesting opposition to his work as a creator and builder). Pierson imbues him with a growing hopelessness, while still holding out hope for his distraught son and love for his destroyed wife. I found Billy to be more of a gay caricature than I would have liked, but he delivers the goods when he needs to. Ross is more of a device than a character, and Roth wisely doesn’t pull focus from the others.

And did I mention this is a comedy? That’s a rhetorical question. No I haven’t, but it is, and a very funny one, too. Albee presents us with the unthinkable—a sympathetic character involved in bestiality under the guise of “love”—and just about the time the concept might overwhelm the audience with sordidness, he pulls back and writes a killer line that allows us some release. And it isn’t uncomfortable laughter, either; it is a real tightrope act and Albee walks it with the skill of a Wallenda. Plus, we get to experience his beautiful words without sitting through a three-hour play. (The Goat is 90 minutes without intermission.)

Veteran director Wayne Salomon presides over the proceedings and the clever costumes are by Teresa Doggett, although I am puzzled by the silly outfit Billy sports. Martin and Stevie’s apartment is a sleek, midcentury modern space with minimal decorations—just family photos and what looks like a small Rothko on the wall to add a splash of color. But it is beige. Even Martin is dressed in various shades of boring beige. Oh, I know there are more glamorous color names, but the colorless surroundings indicate that, under the sparkling surface of glamour and accomplishment, Martin is experiencing a rather dull life. Or perhaps the various earth tones are to relate him to Sylvia, the ultimate country girl, as well. Is it a coincidence that his unorthodox midlife crisis apparently follows a huge burst of creativity? Who knows? And does it matter? Not really, because, for Martin, the heart wants what the heart wants, and, as Othello says, “chaos is come again.”

One of my favorite moments happens before the show begins, as sound designer Robin Weatherall has chosen only one pre-curtain song: “My Romance,” a classic by Rodgers and Hart that is the ultimate expression of the lack of need for the fripperies (blue lagoons, castles in Spain, etc.: “My romance doesn’t need a thing but you”). That was a great moment, and this entire production shows the same kind of care and attention to detail. I highly recommend it. | Andrea Braun


The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? is at the Gaslight Theatre through February 3, 2013. Visit www.stlas.org for information, including tickets and showtimes. It is intended for mature audiences.

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