GET HIS 'GOAT'?
Edward Albee on the Controversial Play that has LA Theater Audiences Talking
By Evan Henerson

Daily News - Los Angeles
February 6, 2005

 

In talking about the latest production at the Mark Taper Forum, we'll have to grind to powder customary squeamishness over revealing important plot data. We do this with playwright Edward Albee's understanding and blessing.

 

And why not? Three years ago, Albee's ``The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?'' was the talk of the theater world as, indeed, any new play by the author of ``Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'' figures to be. By now, the mystery of ``The Goat'' isn't exactly a mystery.

 

So if you plan to attend ``The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?'' blissfully ignorant of the kind of play you're going to see, now would be a good time to switch to the sports page.

If you're still with us, it's my journalistic duty to inform you that the Tony award-winning play, starring Brian Kerwin and Cynthia Mace and directed at the Taper by Warner Shook, is about a successful architect named Martin with a devoted wife, Stevie, and a gay teenage son. Upon turning 50, and just after he has landed a prestigious assignment, Martin begins an affair with a goat who he names Sylvia. Stevie finds out. She is not at all pleased.

You read that right. A goat.

 

The play opened on Broadway in March 2002 with Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl in the lead roles. By the time it closed in December, Bill Irwin and Sally Field had taken over as Martin and Stevie. ``The Goat'' took the 2002 Tony Award for best play and secured Albee a Pulitzer Prize nomination in the wake of mostly admiring critical notices, which didn't always know whether to treat the work as a perverse comedy or a modern-day Greek tragedy.

 

`` 'The Goat' dares to suggest that even the most flawed and confused human beings deserve compassionate understanding,'' wrote Variety's Charles Isherwood, ``and the failure to proffer it is a species of bestiality far more abhorrent than the sexual kind.''

 

Comedy or tragedy? On this question, Albee says, ``I know when my stuff is funny. The trick is to stop them from laughing, to cut off the laughter at some point.''

 

And whatever ``The Goat'' is, it's not meant to be symbolic, says the 76-year-old author. There may be lines that tap into a post-9/11 waywardness and haunting echoes in a Stevie monologue over something broken that can't be fixed. But the situation is real.

 

``I have to remind people that this is an absolutely naturalistic play,'' says Albee. ``It's not metaphorical. There's a real goat. A real love affair with a real goat. There may be symbolism, but everything should be done naturalistically.''

 

The other ``Goat''-worthy pitfall offered by both the playwright and Shook is for viewers to consider ``The Goat'' as a play about deviant behavior or bestiality specifically.

 

``It's about a much bigger thing: the nature of love, and I think the power of the play lies there,'' adds Shook. ``It's very funny, and then it's not. And even at some of its most painful moments, there are some of the most shocking laughs.''

 

Laughs about people having sex with animals. There is a scene in which Martin discusses a visit to a bestiality support group. Albee conducted some Internet research and found that such organizations do exist, although he never visited one.

 

``The whole concept of whether or not they would bring their pets (to the meeting) amused me so much,'' says Albee. ``I almost wrote a scene where people brought their dogs and cats and field mice. It would have been a very funny scene ...''

 

During a telephone interview, Albee brings an off-handed wryness to many of his observations. Bemusement may be an occupational necessity when you've written a darkly comic Broadway play dealing - directly or otherwise - with a love that dare not bleat its name. ``I think I've been called Satan more than once,'' says Albee. ``I got maybe 10 to 12 angry letters about 'The Goat' and no one signed their name. Odd isn't it?''

 

The playwright, who gave Shook his seal of approval to direct ``The Goat's'' West Coast premiere in Seattle (also with Kerwin and Mace), hopes to see the Taper production. A family illness and an upcoming Broadway revival of ``Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'' with Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner as the boozing and battling George and Martha, have somewhat anchored Albee on the East Coast.

 

``Warner and I both invited him (to the Seattle production),'' says Kerwin, ``but he had some important family matters to deal with. We later got a telegram and he said, 'My spies in Seattle inform me that it's quite a wonderful production.' He often referred to his spies in Seattle. I don't know who they were.''

 

Works like Albee's may be an acquired taste, but Kerwin believes the modern stage contains no better writer. Kerwin (``Murphy's Romance,'' ``King Kong Lives'') worked with Albee when the playwright directed a revival of ``Virginia Woolf'' at the Doolittle Theatre in the late 1980s. When he read ``The Goat,'' Kerwin found himself desperate to play the role that eventually went to Pullman.

``I think it's one of his finest works,'' says Kerwin, ``and it's funny. I guess there are actors that get it and actors who don't, but I don't think that's the case with the audience. When it's presented correctly, I think the audience is pretty affected.''

 

Kerwin learned firsthand how affected audiences could become during nightly post-production talk-back sessions. With Shook, the director, out of town on another assignment after the production opened, it fell to Kerwin and Mace to lead the talk-backs.

 

Those discussions were lively, recalls Kerwin, who would have preferred to send the audiences home uncomfortable and with a lump in their throat.

 

``I learned that this is really about people trying to get it out of their system. They came wanting to shake it all out,'' says Kerwin. ``It was interesting and kind of neat that nobody misconstrued the play as being anything about bestiality - whether it's good or bad, or should or shouldn't be allowed. That just isn't what the story is about.''

 

Others were less interested in peeling away the play's layers. Past productions of ``The Goat'' have spurred walkouts and occasional refund requests from subscribers. Albee contends that when people walk out midperformance - which isn't the easiest thing to do, since the 100-minute play is performed without an intermission - it's often over objections to the language and to a late scene involving Martin and his son, Billy.

 

``I'm always surprised that people are surprised,'' says Albee. ``With 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' people would take sides and say, 'How can you use such language?' I'd say, 'What are you complaining about?' and they'd tell me stuff that wasn't in the play. Maybe I get shocked too easily and by the wrong things.

 

``If I find that (angry letters) have any intelligence at all, of course I'll answer them. That's dialogue, and it's useful,'' he continues. ``But the ones that just say, 'How dare you. You're going straight to hell.' What can you say to that, besides, 'Thank you'?''