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By Michael Gold
The scene is a well-furnished beige and white living room, with a chess set in the corner, a coffee table with a few art books arranged in a neat, restrained stack, colorful flowers in an expensive vase and other ceramic sculptures on the shelf over the fireplace, with tasteful landscape and abstract paintings mounted on the wall.
It’s so appealing you might find yourself quietly envious and wanting to live there.
But Martin’s and Stevie’s richly appointed home is just the calmly deceptive set-up for the explosions ready to detonate what they thought was their settled domestic life in Arc Stages’ latest production, “The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?” by acclaimed playwright Edward Albee, who also wrote, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Albee specialized in dissecting the rotten heart at the center of a certain class of privileged marriages and occasionally put question marks at the end of his titles, just to add a pinch of burning curiosity to cook in the minds of his audiences.
Martin is an incredibly successful architect at the top of his game, having recently won a prestigious award for his work. He’s just turned 50 and is in love with his beautiful, fashionably dressed wife, Stevie. They exchange witty banter and gently correct each other’s grammar, and that of their 18-year-old son, Billy, who goes to an exclusive private school.
They’re in the market for a second home, a country house far outside the city. They are so wealthy and educated that they can focus on any speaker’s sentence structure at any given moment. In a word, their lives are fabulous.
The play’s central question turns on what comes next.
The subject matter of ‘The Goat’ is so shocking that I can only write about it indirectly for a family newspaper.
Martin hasn’t done anything respectable like rob a bank or get into a bar fight. He hasn’t murdered anybody, but his actions are sufficient to kill his marriage. He’s in a fog of love at the beginning of the play, and it’s not for his wife.
His best friend, Ross, teases the truth out of him, and at first Ross can’t believe it, because Martin’s love is truly beyond the pale. To say that this love is forbidden by the Bible doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Ross is there to interview Martin for his television show, “People Who Matter,” but Martin can’t even focus on talking about his many accomplishments and new projects, such as designing an entire new city somewhere in the Midwest. Martin is so glowingly happy that he’s forgotten how great he is.
Once Ross finds out the bizarre and bitter truth, he insists violently that Martin tell Stevie. This Martin refuses to do.
But Stevie does find out what Martin has done and that sets in motion the destruction of a number of valuable objects in the couple’s wonderfully designed living room.
The actors, with Matt Bogart as Martin, Joan Hess as Stevie, Griffin James Birney as Billy and Michael Halling as Ross, give everything of themselves in a spectacularly physical performance. You feel that all of them are fully committed to telling this most wrenching of stories.
No reality show you see on TV comes close to approaching the stakes involved. Martin has put his entire life in peril, and you wonder how someone so accomplished could risk everything. What kernel of self-destruction did he carry inside himself his whole life to commit an act that he repulses everyone else around him?
It seems so real that the audience may be embarrassed about how deeply all the characters feel the pain of Martin’s conduct. This play attacks the audience’s cultural mores in nefarious ways.
Despite what he’s done, Martin still wants to stay married to Stevie, which seems impossible. He says at one point, “Nothing is connected to anything else” and the audience may well feel that a man as finely educated as this was never more wrong. Martin’s actions destroy his wife, son and best friend. He’s condemned himself to a future of ruin. You wonder, how could this man be so selfish? What strange knot existed in him that he could not bask in the love of his beautiful wife? How could he degrade himself in a way guaranteed to blow up the world he’d made with Stevie?
The final effect of the play is one of pure terror. You want to be able to tear your eyes away from the train wreck taking place on the stage, but you can’t. Arc Stages’ stunning, subversive production of “The Goat, Or Who is Sylvia will grab you by the collar.
The production at Arc Stages in Pleasantville is scheduled to continue two weekends. Tickets are still available for four performances from Feb. 16-18. For tickets and more information, visit www.arcstages.org.
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