Animal Husbandry

On the provocatively splayed architecture of John Arnone's set, David Esbjornson moves Albee's people around with a subtle unassertiveness that anchors and heightens the text. If Pullman doesn't carry the hidden tensions that must be gnawing at Martin, the beatific blandness he exudes instead suggests an equally extreme denial: He's so detached you expect him to levitate when the argument heats up. His gracious withdrawal leaves the field open for Ruehl, who seizes the opportunity thrillingly. I used to think Ruehl only an OK actress, but this role has lit her inner fire. I love her dark-brown voice, like bitter beer, and the way her delicate features seem to sharpen as the emotional temperature rises. And while the number of actresses who can say the word "goatfucker" without raising a laugh will always be small, the number who can evoke pity and terror while saying it currently totals one.


If Ruehl has any time to spare from her triumph, the younger women over at The Crucible desperately need a new voice coach. They all screech incomprehensibly in the same grating three-note range, except for Mary Warren, who snivels. But then, you know well before her entrance that, in this production, Mary Warren will snivel. To fix this Crucible requires far more than a new voice coach. It needs a set designer who could curb the absurdity of creating three naturalistic sets and then depicting Salem jail as a Nevelson box. It needs two leading ladies who can convey some sense of human relations. Most of all—and most startling—it needs a director who believes that, even in melodrama, characters who project more than two dimensions are more interesting to an audience.

Ruehl, Pullman, and Carlson in The Goat: close chèvre
photo: Carol Rosegg
Ruehl, Pullman, and Carlson in The Goat: close chèvre

Details

The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?
By Edward Albee
Golden Theatre
Broadway and 45th Street
212-239-6200

The Crucible
By Arthur Miller
Virginia Theatre
Broadway and 52nd Street 212-239-6200

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It's startling because Richard Eyre, who has given much duller plays than The Crucible exactly the quality I mean, has perpetrated a rendition of this exciting script that's straight out of everyone's nightmare high school production. When I call The Crucible a melodrama, I mean a work not far from tragedy, except that the larger moral values are pre-decided. Eyre apparently thinks the form is one in which the people are all crude puppets. You can predict the bulk of his line readings in advance, and if a cheap gesture will underscore someone's goodness or badness, you can be sure Eyre will have the actor make it. I never saw a Reverend Parris actually knock Tituba down before; it doesn't get her out of the room, which is what the character wants, but hitting a frightened black woman is an excellent way to inform the Broadway gentry that you are not a nice person.

Yes, it's all like that—except when individual actors have both the intelligence and the standing to defy Eyre's penchant for predictability. Brian Murray, taking stage, letting his lines breathe, and frankly playing Deputy Governor Danforth as a testier version of Shaw's General Burgoyne, is the evening's hero, with John Benjamin Hickey's devil-haunted Reverend Hale close on his heels. Helen Stenborg puts a dash of sauce in Rebecca Nurse's saintliness, Tom Aldredge adds a whimper to Giles Corey's grousings, and Liam Neeson, curt-voweled and brusque of tempo, might have been a superb John Proctor. The Act III climax, during which he writhes on the floor, suggesting that God may be dead but the hamming of James O'Neill is alive and well, I blame entirely on Eyre. The only thing I can't blame him for is the barnlike vastness of the Virginia, a deeply ungrateful place for spoken theater. Even in that, a cannier director would have improved audibility by making Paul Gallo turn the lights up.

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