Reviewed by George Basler
Nobody ever accused Edward Albee of playing it safe. And that’s certainly not the case with The Goat or, Who is Sylvia, which opened this past weekend (June 9-11) at KNOW Theatre in downtown Binghamton.
The play won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, and it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A fine KNOW Theatre cast, well directed by James B. Nicola, makes it a compelling evening of theater.
But the subject matter is about as weird as it gets, and deciphering Albee’s intentions is a daunting task.
At the center of the play is a societal taboo that is pretty close to the top of the list as far as taboos go.
As the play begins, Martin, a hugely successful architect (Jarel Davidow), and Stevie, his bright, loving wife (Dori May Ganisin), appear to be living the ideal marriage. Albee sets them up as the textbook example of an upper middle class, educated, liberal couple, complete with a gay teenage son.
But something is wrong in utopia. Martin is distracted and vaguely dissatisfied. The couple’s life goes off the rails when Martin confides to a friend that he’s fallen in love with, and had a sexual relationship with, a goat named Sylvia.
Martin sees it as romantic and consensual. Not surprisingly, Stevie sees it as betrayal and angrily confronts her husband. Pretty soon their marriage, and indeed their whole world, is shattered.
The play features Oedipal tensions and blood-soaked revenge that echoes Greek tragedy. In Stretching My Mind, Albee said the play is “about love and loss, the limits of tolerance and who, indeed, we really are.”
Maybe so, but Albee’s play tests how far an audience can suspend disbelief. A goat is still a goat, after all. The play’s strongest element is not any deep theme, but the caustically funny dialogue that is Albee’s specialty. Much of the KNOW Theater production plays like an absurdist, and very dark, comedy, not a cathartic tragedy.
The juiciest role is that of Stevie, who strings together a parade of morbidly funny and bitter comments in the riveting middle section of the play. Ganisin gives a powerhouse performance. Her comic timing is first-rate as her character spits out barbs and gradually destroys the couple’s furniture while Martin unveils his “loving” relationship with Sylvia.
Moreover, Ganisin successfully ping-pongs from grief to desperation to anger to revenge that will shockingly play itself out at the end of the play. The performance will shake you.
The problem is that the role of Stevie is so dominant that it overshadows the other characters. Even Martin, whose moral dilemma should the focus of the play, takes second place.
That being said, the rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. Davidow plays Martin as a lost soul who is struggling with a sense of emptiness he can’t explain or fathom. The fact that Martin remains a recognizable human being, not the object of twittering ridicule, is a testament to Davidow’s acting ability.
As Billy, the son, Tyler Downey gives an emotionally raw performance as someone who sees his parents, for whom he cares deeply, coming apart at the seams.
Downey is especially good in a monologue near the end about his parents and in a scene in which, in the midst of deep pain, Billy adds another taboo to the mix. The moment is meant to be shocking, and it is. As played by Downey and Davidow, it packs a real punch.
Ted Nappi does an effective job in the smaller role of Ross, the best friend who betrays Martin’s confidence. While the character can be seen as the villain of the piece, Nappi injects some humor into the role, especially in his incredulous reaction to Martin’s revelation. It’s a wise choice.
The play poses some interesting questions. Is Martin a sympathetic character, or a selfish libertine? Can love and shame co-exist? What are the limits of tolerance? Are there absolute “rights” and absolute “wrongs”?
Albee provides no real answers. As Hollywood Reporter reviewer Stephen Dalton noted, Albee’s intentions are “frustratingly opaque.” At times he seems to be playing with the audience by seeing how far he can push boundaries and still be taken seriously. The end is either jolting or ludicrous, depending on your perspective.
One thing is certain, though, the KNOW Theatre production is one hell of ride. It’s a strong ending to a strong season for the Binghamton-based company that just loves to live on the edge.
IF YOU GO: The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? will be performed weekends through June 25 at KNOW Theatre, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 ($18 for seniors, $15 for students); purchase online at www.knowtheatre.org or call (607) 724-4341. A pay-what-you-can performance will be offered at 8 p.m. this Thursday (June 15).