The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?

Goodman Theatre

The Play About the Baby

Goodman Theatre

Ancient peoples used to sacrifice their livestock–and sometimes their firstborn–to stimulate fertility. Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby and The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? revolve around the slaughter of an animal or an infant, but the murders in these plays are meant to help the characters–and the audience–confront emotional sterility and spiritual emptiness. Both works enact rituals of death and rebirth in which comfortable marriages are exposed as shams and the partners are forced to reinvent their lives. The bloody slaying of a goat and the symbolic destruction of a child are meant to make each spouse realize that he or she is essentially alone and that self-knowledge is the only path to truth.

The tearing away of illusions and the symbolic destruction of an imaginary child both call to mind Albee’s 1962 Broadway breakthrough, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And these two recent Albee plays, receiving their Chicago premieres as part of the Goodman Theatre’s Edward Albee Festival, do recycle themes and characters from the earlier work. Both showcase his knack for juxtaposing comedy and drama in crisp, wittily barbed chitchat, clever semantic game playing, broadly arcing soliloquies, and devastating verbal battles. But The Goat and The Play About the Baby are the work of a writer who has nothing to say he didn’t say more vividly 40 years ago.

The Goat, which premiered on Broadway last year, centers on an architect named Martin (Patrick Clear)–a “decent, liberal, right-thinking, talented, famous, gentle man,” in the words of his elegant and beautiful wife, Stevie (Barbara Robertson). Theirs is a seemingly perfect modern urban marriage: they love each other, are good together in bed, and live in a beautifully furnished home packed with tasteful primitive art and ultramodern furniture (courtesy of set designer Michael Philippi). They’re so au courant they even have a handsome, well-adjusted gay son (Michael Stahl-David) whose homosexuality they accept without reservation. (In this they’re decidedly unlike Albee’s own adoptive parents, whom he satirized in the castrating mother and father figures of Virginia Woolf and its predecessors, The Sandbox and The American Dream.)

But Martin, who’s just turned 50, has a secret: he’s having an affair with, yes, a goat. Her name is Sylvia, and he met her when he went shopping for a country house. To him she represents everything innocent, natural, and unconditionally accepting.

Martin’s infidelity is exposed by his supposed best friend, Ross (William Dick)–a “left-wing proletarian snob,” as Martin rightly describes him. His outing of Martin recalls the infamous 1966 New York Times essay by critic Stanley Kauffmann, “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises,” that identified Albee, William Inge, and Tennessee Williams anonymously but unmistakably as “(reputed) homosexuals” offering audiences a distorted view of marriage. (Though Albee is now quite comfortably and openly gay, the tenor of the times made Kauffmann’s analysis something close to professional assassination–and the pious, self-righteous Ross surely represents Albee’s satire of the meddling media.)

The rest of this 100-minute one-act is devoted to the reaction of Martin’s family to his relationship with Sylvia. Stevie unleashes revulsion and murderous anger in a blistering, pottery-smashing, furniture-throwing tirade that matches anything in Virginia Woolf. But while in Virginia Woolf it’s the husband who takes action to exorcise the demons in the marriage, here it’s the wife–who kills, hoping to save her marriage from Martin’s fantasy that he can form an emotional bond with a farm animal.

Albee is clearly looking for “something outside the rules,” as Stevie puts it–something that can be as shocking today as George and Martha’s liquor-fueled obscenities were in 1962. Yet as bestiality is described in embarrassed yet rapturous tones by Martin, it’s funny and sweet, a joke for the first third of the play. One thinks of Gene Wilder courting a sheep in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) (“Let’s be gentle”) or of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, in which a man’s proper life in town masks his secret habit of “Bunburying” in the country. (Interestingly, Stevie describes Martin’s extramarital activity in terms that Wilde’s wife, Constance, might have used about his sodomy with working-class boys: “You smell of shit, you smell of all I cannot imagine being able to smell.”)

The fact is, in the age of tabloid TV, Martin’s bestiality just isn’t as shocking as Albee wants to make it in the final part of the play, which careens toward tragedy. (“Men Who Cheat on Their Wives With Livestock”–perfect for Jerry Springer.) Yet by choosing bestiality over, say, pedophilia, the 75-year-old playwright avoids dealing with real consequences of a widespread perversion. (A brief hint of incest between Martin and his beautiful son is confusing, intrusive, underdeveloped, and unconvincing.) As a result, the central conflict of The Goat seems merely an excuse for the actors to strut their stuff.

And strut they do. In director Robert Falls’s beautifully cast staging, Clear and Robertson express an astonishing emotional range, filling the 850-seat Albert Ivar Goodman Theatre. Clear is by turns distracted, poetic, and anguished. Robertson is nothing short of volcanic as she sustains a tantrum worthy of Clytemnestra, Medea, or Martha in Virginia Woolf, whose declaration of “total war” on her husband is echoed by Stevie’s: “You have brought me down, and, Christ! I’ll bring you down with me!”

Next door, in the 365-seat Owen Bruner Goodman Theatre, the stage is bare except for a couple of plain wooden chairs and an oversize baby carriage hanging overhead. Here, in The Play About the Baby (which premiered in London in 1998 and ran in New York in 2001), two couples clash over truth, illusion, identity, and a child who may or may not exist. The younger pair, identified as Boy and Girl (Scott Antonucci and Julie Granata), recall Nick and Honey, the handsome young teacher and his mousy wife in Virginia Woolf whom the bitter alcoholics George and Martha invite over for a game of Get the Guests. Nick and Honey had gotten married because Honey thought–or pretended–she was pregnant. In The Play About the Baby, Boy and Girl seem to be proud first-time parents: in the first scene, she rushes offstage to undergo a loud delivery, climaxed by the cry of a child.

The baby is eventually destroyed by an older couple, Man and Woman (Matt DeCaro and Linda Kimbrough), who resemble George and Martha after rehab. She’s elegant, smart, sassy, and sexy; he’s smug, snide, sarcastic, yet strangely engaging. Systematically they tease and taunt the young couple, whose symbolic roles as Adam and Eve are reinforced by an episode in which they run stark naked across the stage. The muscular, casually narcissistic Boy appears seminude in other scenes, recalling the young bodybuilder in Albee’s 1961 The American Dream; like his earlier counterpart, Boy is emasculated by Albee’s envious, willfully destructive middle-aged parent figures, who then train their sights on Girl, telling her that they’ve taken her baby, then convincing her there never was a baby to begin with.

“No baby?” the distraught Boy asks. “No,” Girl replies bleakly. “Maybe later. When we’re older. When we can take terrible things happening.” “I hear it crying,” he says. “I hear it too,” she says. The terror and sadness in that elegantly phrased closing duet stirs memories of Albee’s most famous final lines: “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “I am, George. I am.”

Albee is a master stylist, and New York director Pam MacKinnon is keenly attuned to his stark yet musical rhythms. From DeCaro she coaxes an especially sharp performance: whether jesting with the audience like a cross between Don Rickles and the Stage Manager in Our Town or harshly dismissing Girl’s anguished efforts to believe her baby exists, he’s at once appalling and appealing, as insidiously attractive as Eve’s serpent and as cruelly judgmental as Adam’s God.

But the wisdom DeCaro’s character traffics in is shopworn: “If you have no wounds, how can you know you’re alive? How can you know who you are?” These two plays are fine showpieces for some terrific actors. But The Play About the Baby and The Goat would probably be dismissed as imitation Albee–derivative drivel or parodic plagiarism–if they were written by anyone other than Albee himself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.