From farce to tragedy, led by a goat
GLOUCESTER - When Edward Albee is at his best, no one is more pitiless and penetrating in exposing the lies we tell ourselves in the name of social propriety.
“The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?’’ does not represent Albee at the top of his form, its 2002 Tony Award for Best Play notwithstanding. But it does represent America’s Greatest Living Playwright, an artistic force for more than half a century now, in full envelope-pushing mode.
Within an inherently farcical situation - a happily married architect falls hopelessly in love with a goat - Albee manages to find the stuff of tragedy. It is a tricky balance to maintain, which may explain why, at the performance I attended, some audience members at Gloucester Stage Company’s production felt compelled to guffaw loudly during the far-from-amusing climax of the play.
Still, for all the tonal shifts and flashes of Albee’s mordant humor, there is no mistaking the intensity of what is happening onstage with “The Goat,’’ especially when the stage is occupied by Anne Gottlieb.
Gottlieb brings a tidal fury to her portrayal of Stevie, the (very) wronged wife of Martin, the goat-smitten architect (Robert Pemberton). “Martin, did you ever think you’d come back from your splendid life, walk into your living room, and find you had no life left?’’ asks Stevie.
She is, of course, posing that query to herself, too, and it is never less than riveting to watch Gottlieb work her way through the implications of that question. (Her performance is all the more impressive considering that Gottlieb stepped in for Lindsay Crouse, who withdrew from the production just before rehearsals began in order to care for her mother, newly released from a critical care unit).
In its scenes of marital skirmishing, with words (and the occasional vase) flying to and fro, “The Goat’’ at times summons echoes of Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’’ But the stakes never seem as high as in that masterwork, partly because Martin, unlike George in “Virginia Woolf,’’ is more bemused spectator than fully engaged combatant.
As he turns 50, Martin is on a career roll: He’s the youngest winner ever of the Pritzker Prize, and he’s just been selected to design a $200 billion dream city. But he has a secret, and her name is Sylvia.
When word reaches Stevie of her husband’s four-legged inamorata, it knocks the underpinnings out from what she believed was a solid, even exemplary, marriage. “We all prepare for jolts along the way, disturbances of the peace, the lies, the infidelities - if they happen,’’ she muses.
“Death before you’re ready to even think about it - that’s part of the game. A stroke that leaves you sitting looking at an eggplant the week before had been your husband - that’s another. . . . But if there’s one thing you don’t put on your plate, no matter how exotic your tastes may be, it’s . . . bestiality.’’
Yet Albee wants us to take Martin’s dilemma seriously. Martin’s love for Sylvia may be absurd, stomach-turning, family-destroying, criminal, but the playwright has a point to make about the power of love to override reason. When Stevie spits out at Martin that “It is about you being an animal!’’ he quietly replies: “I thought I was; I thought we all were . . . animals.’’
In his combination of self-awareness and obliviousness, Martin is a strangely poignant figure. Pemberton makes us see the depths of Martin’s folly, and, crucially, the fact that to Martin it is not folly.
Dennis Trainor Jr. does what he can with the underwritten part of Ross, Martin’s best friend and the one who spills the beans about Sylvia. As Billy, the gay teenage son of Martin and Stevie, Jesse Rudoy rises to the challenge of making the boy’s pain seem more than just collateral damage. He is wrenching in the final showdown with his father.
But it is Gottlieb who lifts “The Goat’’ to a higher plane than it would otherwise reach. During a pivotal scene, the chain on her eyeglasses got tangled with one of her earrings as she tried to lift the glasses from her head. Without missing a beat, Gottlieb kept talking while she removed the earring and put it down next to the glasses and chain, as if Albee had written it that way. Like everything else about her performance in “The Goat,’’ it was proof that this is one actress who can handle whatever fate throws her way.
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.