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Getting your Goat

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Three years ago, on this very date, a small play titled, The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?, opened on Broadway. It was the first Edward Albee play to reach Broadway in 20 years and it called to mind the way Albee-s first [hit] play, Who-s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, got under the skin of the theater-going public.

Walter Kerr, the longtime drama critic for the New York Times told a funny story about Albee-s scandalously successful play:

-I would hurry back from early first-night curtains at the very moment when the customers for Who-s Afraid of Virginia Woolf were having their second intermission, and it was impossible not to hear what the most excited people were saying. -You were the one who wanted to come!- and -Since when did married people talk like that?- These were among the commonest among the louder expostulations. It was as though people who hadn-t quarreled publicly in years were compelled by the play to say that people don-t, or shouldn-t, raise their voices to one another. They behaved like the play in order to deny the play; they were outraged by its behavior, and in theirs. One thing about them. They all went back in.-

The Goat does not have an intermission, but even if it did, it-s likely that most of the audience would still go back in too--as it has dutifully for Albee-s shockers for over 40 years. With Arthur Miller-s death last month, Edward Albee has a assumed the role of America-s most distinguished living playwright--and The Goat, which is playing in regional theaters everywhere after its much-talked-about New York run, is a perfect reminder of Albee-s singular talents as a dramatic provocateur.

The Goat, quite simply, is about a successful, married man who begins to have a love affair with, well...a goat. A goat named Sylvia to be precise.

Needless to say, the man-s wife and son have some problems with this, and therein lies the simple dramatic conflict at the heart of this 100-minute play.

What-s fascinating about The Goat is that it-s one of those rare works that really provokes people--when I saw the Broadway production, my date that evening threatened never to speak to me again unless I admitted to her that the play was vulgar and irresponsible. (Interestingly, she now works for Cosmopolitan magazine).

This ability to rile people up explains why almost every regional theater in the country is scrambling to put it on. Last fall it played at the San Diego Rep, and inspired 1,000-word letters to newspapers decrying the play and the reviews about it. (Past productions of The Goat at other theaters have even inspired patrons to demand refunds.)

This past week, I attended a new production of The Goat at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. and, sure enough, a few people walked out loudly, making clear their disgust for the material.

The Goat is now playing in Los Angeles, but there weren-t any walk-outs on opening night at the Taper last month. That-s because the audience was too busy laughing.

While the current D.C. production goes for a sort of casual realism, the Taper production (first seen in Seattle two years ago) plays The Goat as comedy.

Albee-s play does have a fair share of great punch lines--including a classic joke involving the SPCA--which director Warner Shook milks to deliver a big laugh; but this Taper staging seems to the let the audience off too easy.

The reason The Goat has gotten people-s proverbial goat, is that it shows two people talking frankly about actions that are unimaginable. A certain amount of laughter brings this pain closer to the viewer and makes it seem intimate and real; but too much laughter and the audience can start to feel that the proceedings are just a farce.

But one should be careful of asking The Goat to be serious--I can still hear the icy, pitch-perfect response delivered by Mercedes Ruehl when her husband in the original Broadway staging, Bill Pullman, begged her to be serious. -No,- she purred, -it-s too serious for that.-

Edward Albee-s The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? continues at the Mark Taper Forum through March 20.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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