Tragedy always dares parody. One of the easiest plays in decades to burlesque and ridicule, Edward Albee’s The Goat is also the one most likely to be talked about seriously—angrily, ferociously—for years to come. You can hear the controversy rising around you as you exit up the aisle, and it does not abate on the way home. For a moment, the theater has become the principal source of New York conversation again. Never mind what Bloomberg or Bush said to the press, people are much too busy wrangling over what Bill Pullman says to Mercedes Ruehl on the stage of the Golden Theatre. Things haven’t fallen out this way since Mamet’s Oleanna, and Oleanna‘s predecessor in the debate-igniting department was a certain Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Yes, Mr. Albee knows the art of giving moral debate an aesthetic shape. If it’s too early to list The Goat among his masterpieces, still, those who are scrambling to inscribe it on the scroll of his disasters had better move slowly: They may yet find themselves off in the hall of shame, with the guys who suppressed Ghosts and hooted down The Rite of Spring.
Structurally, The Goat is as simple as a one-act play can be, its straightforward action laid out in an intermissionless 100 minutes. A man has two loves, one of them his wife; he tells his best friend about the other love. The best friend tells the wife. The wife has a long, violent confrontation with her husband and storms out. The husband, not unreasonably, has a quarrel with the friend, which is interrupted by their discovery that the wife has committed what can only, in this context, be called a crime of passion. The end. Between 1840 and 1920, nearly every working playwright in Paris, London, Vienna, Berlin, Budapest, and New York wrote a version of this story; Albee’s brilliant way of extending its boundaries had to wait for our own transgressive time. In this version, the man’s other love is a goat. He calls her Sylvia, though it is unclear whether that is her name. The goat has no lines.
Pellucid as storytelling, Albee’s script is a dense web of byways—philosophic, social, ethical—overgrown with psychological clues. The hero, Martin (Pullman), has just turned 50; an architect, he has also just won both a major award and the giant contract to design a visionary “world city” with a whopping $27 billion budget. Far from swelling his ego, this success has left him bemused and forgetful, prone to quibble, like earlier Albee heroes, over niceties of word use. This amuses his wife, Stevie (Ruehl), but nettles his old college chum Ross (Stephen Rowe), the host-cum-producer of what’s apparently a cable show called People Who Matter. It’s during Ross’s attempt to interview Martin for the show that the revelation occurs.
Martin’s simultaneous passions for Stevie and Sylvia are apparently the only certainties in his view of his own life. Architecture, success, friendship, the daily trivia of domestic life—everything else provokes him to puzzled questions. He’s most openly dubious about the homosexuality of the play’s fourth character, his and Stevie’s 17-year-old son, Billy (Jeffrey Carlson). Martin and Stevie, liberals, have met Billy’s coming out with loving, supportive tolerance; Martin’s ambivalence on the subject only worsens his own case: A powerfully fraught scene in which Billy finds himself confessing, to his own incomprehension, that he still loves his father is cut short when Ross walks in on them embracing. (The casting of Carlson, a gifted novice actor, adds to the disquiet: He looks 17 but speaks in the raspy bass-baritone of a much older man.)
At every turn, Albee displays a sense of responsibility that’s almost unique among the artists who’ve lately been testing art’s permissible boundaries. “For the poet, he nothing affirms,” Philip Sidney told the English Renaissance, “and therefore never lyeth.” Albee has played fair; he affirms neither side in his onstage debates, merely noting what the people say and do. When Martin declares that Sylvia returns his love, Stevie is there with remarks about mistreating animals. When questions of normality and permissiveness arise, Billy is there to shout that his sex partners are two-legged. Martin may be scathing, in his climactic dispute with Ross, about friendship and betrayal, but the disturbing truth that answers his sneers has been heard onstage in the opening scene, when a puzzled Stevie asks Martin about the odd scent emanating from him. And Stevie’s anger, during their hair-raising confrontation, is constantly refueled by her realization that Martin has been moving, with almost complacent casualness, from goat to wife and back again.
Albee doesn’t convey one key point: how Martin’s goat-love has survived the transition from platonic affection to physical intercourse (a shift from feeling to action that even human-human affairs often don’t survive). Yet here, too, Albee shows us fairly how the others give Martin little chance to explain himself (understandable, given their shock), and the awful struggle that he goes through finding words sufficient for the little they let him convey. Here Albee proves his mettle by investing his familiar word games with a newly fierce relevance. When Martin and Stevie haggle over whether Sylvia’s a “she” or an “it,” the question not only has philosophical ramifications—if you don’t believe me, check Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation—but is also, literally, a life-or-death issue for them.
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.
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.