If you are a theatergoer who likes to be intellectually challenged, loves nothing more than laughing out loud unless it’s witnessing absolutely brilliant acting, doesn’t get his or her knickers in a twist by subject matter some would deem inappropriate for the dinner table—and if you know nothing at all about the plot twists in Edward Albee’s The Goat Or, Who Is Sylvia?, then read no further. Simply head on over to the Chance Theater for a production so all-around splendid that it will knock your goat’s wool socks off.

On the other hand, if you’re someone who’s read anything about this Tony and Drama Desk-winning Best Play in the eight years since its Broadway debut, you probably already know this major spoiler:

The Goat Or, Who Is Sylvia? is about a man in love with a goat. Not just in love with, but engaged in a full-fledged romantic, sexual affair with said Sylvia—news which doesn’t sit well with Stevie, his wife of twenty years, who finds her perfect life shattered in an instant.

Albee’s tragicomedy centers on Martin Gray (Jonathon Lamer), an enormously successful and highly esteemed architect just turned fifty, a man every bit as much in love with his wife Stevie (Karen Webster) as he was on their wedding day twenty years ago—and for Stevie the feeling is mutual. It may have taken Martin and Stevie a moment or two to accept the news that their seventeen-year-old son Billy (Kevin Tobias) likes boys and not girls, but in all other ways, Martin and Stevie would seem to be living a charmed life.

Martin’s selection to design and build the “World City Of The Future” brings his journalist best friend Ross (Mike Martin) over for a video interview, but an easily distracted Martin seems to have other things on his mind. Pressed for an explanation, he confesses the truth. He has fallen in love with Sylvia, and the photo he shows Ross leaves little doubt as to just who (or what) Sylvia is.

One of the questions theatergoers will be asking themselves and each other on their way home is likely to be the following: Ought a friend to keep this kind of knowledge a secret, or is it in the best interest of everyone concerned that the truth come out? Ross opts for the latter, sending Stevie a hand-written letter which reveals Martin’s special form of adultery in no uncertain terms.

As might be expected, the shit (or should that be dung?) hits the fan.

Anyone with at least a rudimentary knowledge of the work of three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Albee will surmise, quite rightly, that The Goat Or, Who Is Sylvia? isn’t “a play about bestiality,” or is at the very least much more than that. Albee has far more on his mind than shocking us or testing the limits of our liberal tolerance.

Here’s what the playwright himself has to say about The Goat Or, Who Is Sylvia?: “Every civilization sets quite arbitrary limits to its tolerances. The play is about a family that is deeply rocked by an unimaginable event and how they solve that problem. It is my hope that people will think afresh about whether or not all the values they hold are valid.” Far more than a desire to shock, The Goat Or, Who Is Sylvia?, makes its audience ask themselves whether there are indeed limits on whom (or what) we human beings have the right to love.

Fortunately, these questions are asked amidst the peals of laughter which erupt throughout much of Albee’s play, and though some of these laughs may be of the embarrassed variety, most come simply because of Albee’s sharp, witty writing and his skill with a punch line. (My personal favorite is when Stevie responds to Ross’s comment that “I’m sure you’d rather hear it all from a dear friend,” with an “As opposed to what? The ASPCA?!”)

Both Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruell scored major award nominations for their performances in the original Broadway production, with Bill Irwin and Sally Field taking over the roles mid-run to considerable acclaim. At the Chance, the roles of Martin and Stevie go to frequent Chance guest Lamer and longtime Chance Resident Company Member Webster, and my guess is that their superb work here stands up quite nicely against that of their more celebrated predecessors.

Lamer (unforgettable as the grieving father in Rabbit Hole) is so heartbreakingly real as Martin and so sincere in what he considers the purity of his love that he achieves the near impossible. He gets us almost siding with him against Stevie, Billy, and Ross at their most lacerating.

Webster, the Chance’s answer to Meryl Streep both for her acting prowess and for her versatility, is simply fabulous as Stevie, her tongue biting one minute, her rage blazing the next, and when she starts breaking things—ever so gently—watch out!

Webster was Lamer’s mother-in-law in Rabbit Hole, and The Goat Or, Who Is Sylvia? reunites them with the gifted young Tobias (formerly Kevin Johnston), as Billy, proving here that he can be as funny as he is touching in a performance that combines teenage bravado and adolescent insecurity in perfect proportion.

Martin completes the cast terrifically as the best friend anyone ever had since Judas chummed up with Jesus, his guy-next-door persona making his transformation to betrayer all the more startling.

All four actors owe much to the sensitive, nuanced direction of Marya Mazor, my only small quibble being a kiss that seems too hurried and even a tad tame for the “deep, sobbing, sexual kiss” Albee describes in his stage directions.

Scenic designer Bradley Kaye has created quite possibly the most stunning single set I’ve seen in a Chance production, an elegant, ultra-modern living room that, if scaled a bit larger, could easily grace a South Coast Repertory stage. Kaye’s set is beautifully lit by Jeff Brewer, Anthony Tran’s costumes are character-perfect, and Casey Long’s sound design completes the all-around first-class package. Jeremy Aluma is assistant director, Jonathon Kolbush stage manager, and Masako Tobaru production stage manager.

The Chance bills itself as “your Off-Broadway Theater in O.C.” With The Goat Or, Who Is Sylvia?, a production that could likely generate raves even on the Great White Way, perhaps the time has come to omit the word “Off.”

The Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.
–Steven Stanley
September 25, 2010
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

Comments are closed.