Good old Edward Albee. One of theater’s grand old men at age 74, he still believes that Broadway is a venue for ideas and intellectually engaging drama. After nearly two decades of premiering his new work abroad, out of town, or Off Broadway -- including the Pulitzer Prize-winning
Three Tall Women and last year‘s The Play About the
Baby -- he’s opened his new play, The Goat, or Who Is
Sylvia?, directly on the Great White Way. And a sly puzzle of a play it is.
On one hand, it’s a situation comedy with a not-for-prime-time premise. Martin Gray (Bill Pullman) is a hugely successful architect who’s won the Pritzker Prize at 50 and just received a kazillion-dollar commission. He lives in marital bliss with his wife of 22 years, Stevie (Mercedes Ruehl), and his happily gay 19-year-old son Billy (Jeffrey Carlson). But something’s amiss. And when his oldest friend Ross (Stephen Rowe) arrives to interview him for a TV show called "People Who Matter," the story comes out: Martin is having an affair with … guess who, or
more accurately, what?
It’s not a big revelation to the audience; we’ve seen it coming. Albee has fun taking his time with windy exposition, teasing repetition, corny jokes, and weirdly self-referential jokes. (Martin
refers to a plus-size bimbo he once bedded as "Large
Alice," which makes fans of Albee's Tiny Alice
titter.) And he proves perfectly adept at mining TV formula writing for laughs. In the midst of the family fracas, Stevie says to Billy, "Your father is sorry for calling you a fucking faggot. He’s not that kind of man.
He’s fucking a goat." In David Esbjornson’s elegant production, all the actors are fine, but Mercedes rules.
Behind the mask of comedy, though, something else is going on. It turns out that Albee is simultaneously delivering an essay on the nature of tragedy (the term comes from a Greek word meaning "goat song"). Martin is a contemporary version of Oedipus, a hero of great proportion who -- to paraphrase Chaucer’s description of tragedy -- "is fallen out of high degree into mystery and endeth wretchedly." It’s not really about sleeping with your mother or going googly-eyed over a goat or being President and getting blowjobs from an intern. Albee’s play suggests that the human experience of tragedy is the arrival of something unacceptable that forces us to face the essential mystery of life and death.
April 16, 2002