Love and The Goat Get Messy Onstage

Just in time for the holiday season comes a play about a man having sex with a goat. Leave it to Kitchen Dog Theater, never ones for plum-pudding entertainment, to plop Edward Albee's unnerving The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? in our midst while everyone else is going with tinsel and Tiny Tim.

There really is a goat named Sylvia in the play (kept offstage until the bitter end), and the man, a respected Manhattan architect named Martin (played with dashing detachment by Bob Hess), really is going to bed with her. Or as his wife Stevie (Diane Box-Worman) puts it, "To stall together! To hay! Not to bed."

Martin's having a hellacious midlife crisis. In the same week, he's won the Pritzker Prize, architecture's highest honor, and been named chief designer of a creepy-sounding $27 billion "world city" to be built on a wide swath of Midwestern farmland. He's also turned the big 5-0 and started forgetting things, like where he put his razor and that human beings aren't supposed to make whoopee with quadrupeds.

But it's not just sex Martin's having with Sylvia; he says it's true love, with the same depth of feeling he has for Stevie. The one and only betrayal in his long, loving marriage is Martin's first foray into animal husbandry, and he likes it. He's a bestial virgin and utterly unrepentant.

The way he tells it, becoming a cud stud is the best thing that ever happened to him, and he does make Sylvia sound like a bit of a catch. She has gorgeous eyes, Martin says, and sweet breath. To a horrified Stevie he describes the "epiphany" of falling for his silky-haired paramour after stopping his car on a country lane: "And when it happens there's no retreating, no holding back. I put my hands through the wires of the fence and she came toward me, slipped her face between my hands, brought her nose to mine at the wires and...and nuzzled."

He describes the rest of the encounter in enough detail to put you off cabrito for life. Stevie's epiphany comes when she realizes Martin has been commuting from their marital bed to his mohair mistress and back for several months. (She thought she smelled a rat, but never imagined...)

His wife tries to mock Martin out of his madness, then to shame him. He won't foreswear Sylvia so Stevie makes the break-up scenario real by methodically destroying the pottery, chairs, paintings and bookshelves in their sleekly appointed apartment overlooking Central Park (designed at Kitchen Dog by Clare Floyd Devries, with subtly dramatic lighting by Linda Blase). Then she chillingly announces that she's going to get revenge on her husband in the worst way possible, which she does. (If you're craving a spoiler, read the end of Oedipus Rex.)

The Goat, like many a Greek drama, tells a fairly straightforward story of a hero who should be enjoying his wealth and achievement but is done in by his own fatal flaws, plunged into a state of wretchedness from which he cannot recover. Martin sets his downfall in motion in the play's first scene, when he blurts out his secret to his lifelong friend Ross (Barry Nash), a TV interviewer. Shaken, Ross spills it all to Stevie in a formally worded letter. Stevie then informs Billy (Kevin Moore), her and Martin's gay 17-year-old son.

That's right, Billy's their kid. His first words to his dad after hearing the news are "You're doing what?! You're fucking a goat?!"

Most of this happens in the first half of the 90-minute one-act. Then the real fun begins.

Albee's the best for hyper-verbal donnybrooks between husbands and wives. He's birthed many a smart, mean character bent on annihilating a mate with words. Think of the troubled couples in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Marriage Play. In The Goat's terse, profane spurts of dialogue, Albee lets Stevie flay Martin to the bone.

"Do goats cry, by the way?" asks Stevie, taking a short respite from smashing up the place.

"I...I don't know," says Martin. "I haven't..."

"...made her cry yet!?" says Stevie. "What's the matter with you?!"

But this Woolf in Goat's clothing is Albee typing with a nasty smirk. Pretentiously subtitled Notes toward a definition of tragedy, this 2002 play feels like something a smug old coot turns out in a day or two on a dare just to see how many times he can force serious actors to say "goat-fucker," or some variation, on a legitimate stage. (Fifteen, by rough count, at Kitchen Dog.)

The three-time Pulitzer winner cannot be serious about this...this overwrought nanny diary. The Goat begins as deceptively droll drawing room comedy—the uneven Kitchen Dog production directed by Tim Johnson gets about half the laughs it should—but it descends too soon into sad, sick jokes. If it's supposed to be a parable about a great man who ruins his life (and his wife's and son's) with his risky behavior, well...whatever. Clinton had his intern; Spitzer had his call-girl; Martin the world-famous architect has his goat. We get it. Men craving some strange will put their dicks anywhere it feels good.

Albee doesn't stop with the topic of Capricorn. The Goat gets grosser and grosser by the minute, having Martin share stories of sessions in a secretive self-help group for similarly twisted beast-bangers. There's a guy who has it off with a pig, Martin tells Stevie, and one who goes at it with a goose. (Albee at least shows restraint by not having the goose-screwer tell a motel clerk to "put it on my bill.") Trying to make his wife understand his problem, Martin mentions that all of the group members suffered sexual trauma as children, a possible rationale for adult perversions. (Hey, has Albee been up late listening to Loveline?) But Stevie sneers at the idea of "Goat-Fuckers Anonymous" and Albee doesn't allow the audience any insight into Martin's motivation. Was he too a victim of some unspeakable act?

We never find out, but we do get bombarded with more taboos, like incest with Billy, which seems incidental compared to Martin's extramarital dalliance. The Goat caroms from one jaw-dropper to another. It's all a bit much. Outside of certain corners of the Ozarks and some less reputable circuses, people just don't do things as awful as this and then talk about it—at least not without a guarantee of first-class accommodations by the Jerry Springer show.

Albee shorts us on logic, but the leading actors at Kitchen Dog are generous with their performances. Hess plays Martin with a 1,000-yard stare, as though his thoughts and heart are always with Sylvia on the back 40. He's good, but it's really Diane Box-Worman's show. Nobody says "goat-fucker" with such a womanly guttural thrust. Her breakdown scene, culminating in three feral wails, is shattering.

As for the other two, Nash never finds his rhythm as Martin's old school chum Ross. On opening night, he stumbled on lines and looked lost in the blocking. Kevin Moore is way too old to be a believable 17-year-old, but he has a youthful, bouncy energy and, besides, casting a real teenager in this hard-R-rated play might be regarded as a form of abuse. It's tough enough on the grown-up actors. For every performance, they have to hoof it to the theater to spin an ugly yarn about the love that dare not bleat its name.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner