“Something has been broken….”

Edward Albee’s “The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?” — February 23, 2014

The California Repertory Company is staging Edward Albee’s The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?  at its Royal Stage on the Queen Mary in Long Beach for a three-week run. When the play was first staged a dozen years ago, no doubt a significant percentage of its audience in New York would have remembered that Rochelle Owens wrote a play called Futz in 1968. Albee seems to have included one allusion to Owens’s play in The Goat. Albee’s story focuses on the marriage of Martin, a world-famous architect, and Stevie, who learns from a letter from Martin’s best friend that her spouse has deviated from the herd of sexual normativity in order to take up with a barnyard animal, In explaining to his wife that he has made an effort to understand his compulsion, he describes going to a self-help meeting for those whose sexual preference is an animal. The leader is fucking a small young pig, according to Martin and it’s hard not to regard that detail as an allusion to Owens’s play.

While watching The Goat yesterday afternoon, however, with Linda and and Hye Sook, I  was reminded of a passage in The Zoo Story,  which came out years before Owens’s play.  In the monologue, “The Story of Jerry and the Dog,” Jerry describes to his auditor, Peter, this encounter with his landlady’s dog, whom he has unsuccessfully tried to murder with poisoned meat.

“The beast was there … looking at me. And, you know, he looked better for his scrape with the nevermind. I stopped; I looked at him; he looked at me. I think … I think we stayed a long time that way ….. But during that twenty seconds or two hours that we looked into each other’s face, we made contact. Now, here is what I had wanted to happen: I loved the dog now, and I wanted him to love me. …. ….”

In The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? there is no love-hate relationship; rather, Martin claims to have a bond with a goat named Sylvia that equals if not surpasses the jouissance of Spenser’s Bower of Bliss. My point, though, is that this is not the first time that an off-stage animal has played a major role in one of his plays. In the mid-1970s, back when Century City had a very fine several hundred seat theater, I saw Albee’s Seascape, and my memory is that it involves an encounter between two human and a pair of large (human-scale) sentient lizards. I never read the play, but having seen The Goat, I am very eager to sit down with the script and to start considering what I can now learn about Albee’s use of animals as a dramatic trope. He was one of the half-dozen most important influences and inspirations in my youthful decision to start writing in a serious manner, and I have sadly neglected to keep his work as present in my thoughts as it deserves.

The production of The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? is an above-average effort by a solid theatrical enterprise at the southernmost edge of Los Angeles County, despite the lack of a physical chemistry between the husband and wife. Both Roma Maffia and Brian Mulligan played their roles with thoughtful comprehension, but it was difficult to believe on a physical level that these two people would ever have fallen in love and managed to stay at the level of intimacy they claimed to have experienced during their marriage. Ms. Maffia was especially adept at picking up the comic jousts intertwined into the dissolution of a marriage through an extreme act of infidelity. When her shock gives way to grief, she was able to release the agony of mourning in a sequence of groans that turned the stage into a open grave for which there was no consolation. “Something has been broken that cannot be fixed,” she tells Martin, and though she tries to bury what been broken, the slaughtered goat she drags into their living room cannot ever be interred. Craig Anton’s portrayal of a best friend echoed Ibsen’s DNA to a remarkable degree, even in the final costume of a dark coat at the end of the play. I normally don’t notice costume design, but if anything hinted at the divergence of Stevie and Martin, it was the underlying warmth and coolness of their wardrobes. Stevie’s outfit bespoke a sensual passion, whereas Martin’s cut of cloth seemed to fit the methodical alignments required of an architect.

James Martin’s direction was commendable in its control of the play’s pacing, a far more difficult challenge that it might have seemed to the audience. Albee has always handled dialogue with a master’s gracefulness and any director who undertakes one of his plays had better come prepared for the need to calibrate his cast with vigilance. The one moment I would have liked to have seen worked on longer was the instant in which Roma smashed a painting by Martin’s mother through an easel. It was a rupture that could all too easily be coded as a punctum, and perhaps the brevity of the gesture’s ripples were meant to evoke the way a perfect diver glides through the surface of the water. If so, I still wanted to see the diver linger on the diving board thirty feet above the drowning pool.

Finally, my reflection on this performance would be at fault if I did not mention the winsome presence of a young actor who is still in the earliest stage of eventual multiplicity. Without any mannered sentiment whatsoever, Tyler Bremer’s performance as Billy evoked the inner turmoil of a young man willing to risk having told his parents that he is gay. Whether or not he has given permission to them to share that firm part of his still inchoate social identity with people outside his family is uncertain. (His father’s revelation of his son’s coming out to his best friend seems not to be held to the same standard of rectitude that Martin assails Ross for having violated.) Bremer’s portrayal of Billy superbly catches the travail that any young man must endure to break free of an ambivalence that almost any marriage can succumb to, even when the temptations are far less extraordinary than the betrayal depicted in The Goat.