ORLANDO — Martin is a truly ducky guy, who seems to have it all.
At age 50, he’s a respected architect who lives in a beautiful home with a loving wife, Stevie. They’re a smart, sophisticated, and intellectual couple – liberal enough that Martin has, after some initial discomfort about the subject, accepted that his son Billy is gay.
Martin’s life would appear to be a model for perfection, except for one thing: although still deeply devoted to his wife, a recent visit to a house for sale in the countryside has changed everything for him. Martin and Stevie have always wanted a house in the country they can use as a refuge from the big city, and while visiting one, he suddenly noticed her. Their eyes met. And in a split second, Martin knew he had fallen in love.
He confesses all this to his longtime friend Ross, that the feelings were overwhelming and he simply couldn’t deny it. He admits to having broken down and had sex outside of his marriage.
If it sounds awfully passé in this day and age to see a play about a man having an affair, the kind of plotline that the soaps were discovering decades ago, keep in mind that the author of the play is none other than Edward Albee, of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” fame. Or remind yourself of the play’s title, “The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?” Because when Martin shows Ross a photo of his new love, Ross bursts out laughing. This is all an elaborate joke, he insists. Because the photo Martin handed him is a picture of a goat.
And the question you may find yourself asking is just that: is this all an elaborate joke? In constructing a pitch dark comedy-drama about a successful man who suddenly falls in love with a goat, shocking and bewildering his family and shattering their picture-perfect existence, you’re forced to ask that question. Is it all just a wild spoof, meant to titillate by waving a few of the remaining taboos in the audience’s face? As Stevie tries to avoid a complete breakdown and demands that Martin explain how all this happened, the play ranges from laugh-out-loud comedy (particularly in Stevie’s highly sarcastic responses to the letter Ross sent her explaining that her husband is, um, sleeping around), to heavy melodrama as a tortured Martin tries to describe to Stevie how Sylvia came into his life so potently. The play’s shifts in tone are as unsettling as the subject matter.
So what exactly is Albee aiming for here?
At first I thought of the man-loves-sheep segment in Woody Allen’s movie “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex,” where Gene Wilder enjoys a post-coital cigarette as he lies in bed with a sheep. But that movie was played strictly for campy laughs, which “Goat” doesn’t do at all.
In an odd way, it reminded me a lot more of the 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn as a sophisticated liberal couple whose daughter announces she’s engaged – to a black man. At first her parents insist their discomfort is over their daughter’s future and whether she will be subjected to harassment and intolerance, but eventually they’re forced to confront their own feelings of racial prejudice.
That movie, though, was a plea for tolerance, and I don’t think Albee is asking the world to show acceptance of those who discover bestiality late in life.
In fact, the play seems at times like something that might have seemed funnier on the written page. Is it a spoof of supposedly liberal and tolerant people who suddenly have to confront one taboo too many? Or is it a philosophical musing about the nature of love, and how true love can take us to expected places? That’s hard to say, particularly as the play builds up to its predictably tragic ending.
“The Goat or, Who is Sylvia” is definitely a play to see with a group of friends, and then hit a café afterwards and debate its meanings – whether Albee had a genuine message to deliver, or whether it was all just an elaborate, snarky joke. Is it challenging art — or just bad taste?
The production by DiDonna Productions/The Empty Spaces Theatre Co(laboration) does have one clear asset: the astonishingly brave and heartfelt performances by John DiDonna as Martin and Marty Stonerock as Stevie.
It would have been easy in a production like this to play the roles strictly as camp, an escape root for an actor to wink and nod to the audience, as if to say Hey I get it, we’re just goofing on you. That’s not what either DiDonna or Stonerock do here, though. Stonerock’s anguish as she deals with the complete humiliation of discovering what her husband has been doing, which turns into a raging anger, is funny, then deeply moving, then a bit scary. And DiDonna is just as good as he shows us Martin’s desperate need to get his story off his chest, to explain the unexplainable – how talking about it for the first time is something he simply can’t put off any longer. There are few moments in the play that work better than Martin’s discussion of the support group he’s discovered and started attending, that includes a man in love with a pig and a woman sleeping with a dog — and Marty’s aghast and often sickened reaction. Their acting is so good, their emotions laid bare so explicitly, that at times you might feel they’re let down by Albee, who can’t seem to decide if he’s writing a real drama, a zany satire, or just something intended to shock middle class audiences at a time when cable TV has used up virtually all the taboos ages ago.
“The Goat or, Who is Sylvia” is playing at the Mandell Theater at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center in Loch Haven Park in Orlando, now through May 3. Performances are Friday through Sunday at 8 p.m., with a special performance on Monday, April 28. Tickets are $20 general admission, and $15 for students and seniors. Call 407-328-9005 for reservations, or make credit card purchases by logging onto the Red Chair Project.
Michael Freeman in an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..