- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2005

It is hard enough to meet a good man these days. Now we have to compete with livestock?

That is the outrageous premise of Edward Albee’s latest play, “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” a shocking comedy about the unreasonable nature of love treated with bristling intelligence by director Wendy C. Goldberg and a simpatico quartet of actors.

Bestiality is no laughing matter — especially for the animal receiving such untoward advances — but you’ll find yourself roaring over the cunning absurdity of Mr. Albee’s plot and the razored elegance of his dialogue. It’s as if Noel Coward decided “Private Lives” could be improved if the character of Amanda were a chicken.

For a play like “The Goat” to work, everything has to be perfect in the creation of a world as hermetically artful as one you’d find in an Oscar Wilde comedy. Miss Goldberg’s production at Arena achieves that ideal, heightened artifice in both performances and style. Neil Patel’s set looks like a spread from Architectural Digest, the living room of people who live in an aesthetic wonderland filled with Breuer chairs, modern paintings, meticulously chosen art objects and high, glistening white walls.

Stevie (Kate Levy), socialite-thin and dressed in expensive neutrals, goes well with the room’s black, silver and red decor. Sleek, chic and possessing a biting wit, Stevie belongs in this room, this life.

Her carefully calibrated life shatters on her husband Martin’s (Stephen Schnetzer) 50th birthday. Martin’s on top of the world, an architect just awarded the Pritzker Prize and a commission to build the “city of the future” on a Midwestern plain. Yet he is forgetful, distracted and harboring an uneasy secret.

He confesses his love for Sylvia, a goat he found while looking for a house in the country, to his best friend, Ross (Rick Foucheux, exquisitely befuddled), hoping for a little understanding and some insight into how a farm animal brought about an epiphany no human being ever could. Instead, Ross is horrified and tells Stevie and her son Billy (Bradford William Anderson), a homosexual teenager struggling with hormones and sexual identity.

Naturally, Stevie reacts volcanically to her husband’s infidelity (“I never had an affair — not even with a cat” is among the barbed gems), and Billy is similarly outraged. The bulk of “The Goat” deals with Stevie’s wrath, which is as huge and molten as that of the heroine of a Greek tragedy, a Medea or Clytemnestra.

The distraught Martin pleads for compassion, for the broad-minded Stevie to wrap her considerable intellect around the notion that love has no logic or boundaries. Ironically, Martin is OK with sleeping with a goat but is passive-aggressive about his son’s homosexuality.

Stevie cannot make the leap of faith Martin asks. “How can you love me when you love so much less?” she thunders, each diatribe punctuated by the crisp breaking of an art object. For her, it is more than mere infidelity — some terrible line has been crossed; nature is out of balance.

The “Goat” mirrors the trajectory of a Greek tragedy in that a woman must commit a bold sacrifice in order to put things right again. Miss Levy is magnificent as Stevie. Her remarks are like paper cuts to the heart.

“The Goat” is largely, pointedly, mercilessly funny. Mr. Albee’s writing has a cutthroat delicacy, a sophisticated veneer that belies the play’s base subject matter. Even in their most heated moments, Martin and Stevie insist on linguistic precision, correcting everyone’s grammar and word choices.

In a performance of wounded agony, Mr. Schnetzer plays Martin not as a pervert, but as a man who has gone beyond the pale yet believes that because his actions spring from pure emotions, they should be stomached.

Cynics may contend that everything can be justified, even the most atrocious acts. Yet Mr. Albee does not go for the easy answers in “The Goat.” His play is more nuanced and dangerous, asking us to consider whether love is, indeed, boundless, and how far society can go in tolerating those who love in the shadows.

****

WHAT: “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” by Edward Albee

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through April 17.

TICKETS: $45 to $59

PHONE: 202/488-3300

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