Sep 20, 2016

A Goat and Two Lizards

Patrick J. Adams, Cynthia Mace, Brian Kerwin, and James Eckhouse in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? at the Mark Taper Forum in 2005.
I've seen a fair amount of Edward Albee's work in my time, indeed the majority of his major plays, in one production or another, and Virginia Woolf in several (I loved the most recent Broadway revival, and I also share Ben Brantley's awe for a special out-of-time staged reading with Uta Hagen, Jonathan Pryce, and Mia Farrow, though on the West Coast I saw Peter Gallagher as Nick; I talked to Hagen about it here).

I think I must have reviewed his work elsewhere (and I did speak to him to this one brief, memorable time), but it turns out that the only instances I can recover from the Internet quicksand are a pair from 2005, during the summer of which I moved to New York after years in L.A. So the first is of a great production of The Goat at the L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum, the second of a very fine Broadway revival of Seascape. I'm hard pressed to think of two more different plays in his oeuvre; in any case it's an unalloyed pleasure to recall them, and of their residing, synchronistically, on other side of a major cleavage in my own life.

I find myself agreeing with Tracy Letts, who in a lovely tribute for American Theatre wrote, "The real reason you pay money to hear what he had to say is because of Mr. Albee’s aching, generous love. It is the bedrock of his work...It might be the disappointed love of a crushed romantic, the bitter love of a neglected child, the angry love of a victim of injustice, but as reflected by his characters, that love was pure and primal and it burned hot."

Feb. 14, 2005, L.A. Downtown News

Getting Your Goat

Albee at the Taper Is a Conversation Starter

I always wince slightly when theatergoers or critics praise a play primarily for being a conversation starter, as if the theater's highest purpose were to send us chattering, even arguing, out the door. Surely this can be among the pleasures of any art form. But mere conversation-worthiness is an unreliable barometer of artistic substance or merit; whether you have a good long chat after a show is as much a matter of your company as the subject. And who hasn't delighted in a good kvetch about a terrible play, concert or film?

Still, it must be said that as a bald-faced dare and a provocation, the likes of which we seldom see in mainstream theater--or mainstream anything, for that matter--Edward Albee's The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? is a corker. A one-act play about a successful middle-aged architect and family man who is in unashamedly carnal love with the animal of the title, it is the very definition of play-as-conversation-piece.

It also happens to be an incisive, brilliantly modulated comedy of middle-class American mores strained to their ultimate extremity, and director Warner Shook's sharp new production at the Mark Taper Forum plants it firmly in the toxic domestic soil which is the unnatural habitat for all of Albee's marital scrimmages (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance). It is a topsy-turvy place where the humor hurts and the horror heals.

We see this immediately in the stony expanse of Michael Olich's set: a purgatorial living room, coldly furnished with tasteful ethnic art and immaculate, unlived-in furniture. It is not a homey haven but an in-between place, a neutral zone where Martin (Brian Kerwin) and Stevie (Cynthia Mace) cross paths to talk innocuously about evening plans, friends' children and the office, and to josh each other in the well-worn way of long-married couples.

But Martin is especially absent-minded, even befuddled today - so much so that he can't even get through a puffy TV interview with his friend Ross (James Eckhouse) without losing track of his thoughts.

What's on Martin's mind, of course, is his new mistress of the pasture. With excruciated equivocation and almost endearing vulnerability, Martin unburdens himself to Ross about Sylvia - his name for the goat he happened to glimpse while house-hunting in the countryside, whose look apparently so powerfully attracted him that he couldn't resist getting more closely acquainted.

This is so absurd that laughter is the only response, at first - until we, along with Ross, Stevie and the couple's teenage son Billy (Patrick J. Adams), realize that Martin is quite earnest, and so is Albee. Then laughter becomes even more desperately needed, as a release of tension and as a shield. "Be serious," Martin pleads with Stevie after a singularly rude and cutting joke. "No, it's too serious for that," she replies. Past wit's end, with nothing to lose, comes wit's second wind.

Albee's own wits never desert him; every time the play threatens to become a one-joke riff on bestiality, or merely a crude twist on the male midlife crisis, he pulls back and takes another angle. A penultimate father/son scene culminates in a rather self-consciously weepy breakdown, but it's the only misstep in the play's deft juggling of the grotesque and the empathic. The cast, particularly the querulous Kerwin and the tightly wound Mace, match the play's unrelenting dissonance note for note.

One might question whether the family's pre-goat life must be portrayed retrospectively as an idyll of happy wedlock and supportive parenthood. This may be Albee's version of a sick joke on "normalcy" - that such fulsome domestic bliss must portend something radically amiss. But the main function of his sketchiness about the family's past is to heighten the contrasts and keep our focus on the present conflict rather than trying to second-guess motivations or back-story.

It also bolsters one of the play's more dubious and unsettling themes: the absence of causality, of consequence, of meaning. "Nothing is connected to anything else," Martin says near the end. "Things happen." This is as bleak as Albee has ever been, and once the squirms and the jokes about "animal husbandry" subside - once we're done, in other words, with all those lively conversations about the play - we're left with the sulfurous aftertaste of apocalypse.

Far from a talking point, that's a conversation stopper.

The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? is at the Taper through March 20, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772 or

Frederick Weller, Elizabeth Marvel, George Grizzard, and Frances Sternhagen in Seascape at the Booth in 2005.


Nov. 22, 2005,

Can a lizard cry? That we find ourselves wondering this, let alone forming such a thought in the first place, is a testament to the uncanny artistry of Edward Albee, whose 1975 oddity Seascape has the writer’s signature blend of provocation, pretension, and put-on. Director Mark Lamos’ splendid new Lincoln Center revival adds another shade that helps this strange, lopsided meditation blow by as smoothly as a sea breeze: playfulness.

The light tone seems proper, since Seascape is essentially Albee’s vacation play, in which he takes the sort of long-married couple his plays usually confine to domestic purgatory and sets them loose on an unidentified beach for a little R and R. This being Albee, these letters could stand for regret and recrimination, as Nancy (Frances Sternhagen) and Charlie (George Grizzard) rehearse a familiar argument over how to spend their twilight years and, by extension, their lives. It’s never too late in the day, though: Michael Yeargan’s set, a furrowed dune with grassy and rocky outcrops, is lit in perpetual afternoon brightness by Peter Kaczorowski.

And while Grizzard and Sternhagen expertly nudge this sweet-and-sour badinage close to an emotional brink or two, the usual notes of marital discord are not the play’s main agenda. Instead, with assured imaginative perversity, Albee introduces a younger couple to the dialogue--of another, quasi-fictional species.

When Sarah (Elizabeth Marvel) and Leslie (Frederick Weller) make their entrance, in Catherine Zuber’s resplendent Komodo Dragon-like costumes, a buzz of absurdist comedy enters the air of the play and never leaves it, even if Albee dances close to the edge of dorky science fiction. These two lizard-people come off less like less literal earthly creatures who’ve crawled from the slimy deep than like aliens from a 1950s film, arriving with a selectively articulate command of English and lots of questions about human behavior, all the better to shine a clarifying light on it.

Watch Leslie’s withering reaction to the news that humans keep their young with them for “18 to 20 years,” or Charlie’s too-eager pouncing on the lizards’ disdain for fish as a form of bigotry. This is observational shtick on the level of a children’s book. Fortunately that’s not all the play has up its sleeve: It makes a case, tenuously but movingly, for a tragic view of human progress, linking the first act’s marital squabble with the lizards’ sense of not belonging, of needing to change but not knowing how.

Lamos’ extraordinarily sensitive cast brings out all these levels, and still more. Grizzard, his gut filling out a blue polo shirt and his voice rasping like a rusty yacht, conveys in Charlie a bone-deep peevishness which has encased his despair like a barnacle. Flitting and poking at it until it’s lanced, as only a loved one is authorized to do, is the bird-like Sternhagen, who brings an unfakeable aplomb to Nancy, even in what she apologetically calls her flare-ups of “petulance.”

Weller and Marvel, coached by movement coordinator Rick Sordelet, slither and preen in a more or less convincing anthropomorphic simulation of reptilian watchfulness and hauteur; there’s an admirable lack of showoff’s fussiness in their performances. Weller works his eyebrows for maximum irony, while Marvel uses her wide, plaintive eyes to accent Sarah’s pathos.

And yes, she’s the one who makes with the tears. While we’re none the wiser by play’s end whether lizards actually do cry (crocodiles, maybe), Seascape does manage to suggest, in its persuasively irrational way, the terrible unknowns and crushing losses they might cry about if they could.

“Seascape,” by Edward Albee, directed by Mark Lamos, at the Booth Theatre.

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