Come for the shouting and shattered glass, stay for the confessional outbursts, wry dialogue, and fascinating sexual politics. This superb production, directed by Whitney Mosery ’08, presents the tragic aftermath of a man’s inexplicable affair with a goat – the traditional mascot of lechery. In this play, which is something like a tragicomedy of coming-out, quinquagenarian architect Martin (Joshua Williams ’07) attempts to reconcile his wife, son, and best friend to an embarrassing – some would say ‘abominable’ – infatuation. Along the way, we learn a little about love, sex, family, the humanity of tolerance, and nostalgie de la boue.
The set looks exactly like you would expect an architect’s house to look, but with more flowers – presumably chosen to foreground the theme of nature. When the play begins, Martin has just won the Pritzker and is slated to be interviewed by old buddy Ross. It’s probably not beyond reason to see a connection between Martin and Albee himself given the analogy of architect and playwright, Albee’s homosexuality, his advanced age, and his garnering of three Pulitzers. Apparently suffering from a touch of hysterical amnesia, Martin nonetheless plays a few rounds of the witty repartee game with wife Stevie (Ashley Johnson ’08). But why does he seem so nervous and ashamed? And oh what is that rural redolence?
Martin is played by Joshua Williams ’07 with a sculpted coif and customary virtuosity. He puts across an empathetic portrayal of a figure whose pastoral predilection is decidedly alienating. Williams plays his role quietly and well – he seems sensitive, bruised, repressed, and yet on occasion he rises to argue with vigor and passion for the love that dare not bleat its name.
Shawn Fennel ’09 plays boyish homosexual “Billy,” and he has the slinking posture, careful dress, and neat haircut to prove it. Billy – “as gay of the 90’s” according to the delightfully idiotic mot of Martin – was the erstwhile black sheep of the family until he was spectacularly overleapt in that category by Martin. Probably the strongest scenes of the play are the loud, naked, and honest exchanges between Billy and Martin during which they reach rapprochement.
Max Staller ’08 brings confidence and avuncular verisimilitude to the role of Ross, television personage and jolly establishment thug. Ross peppers his speech with mentions of the “good ‘ol’” this and that. Ostensibly the “best friend” of Martin, Ross is in no way sympathetic to what he coaxes Martin into revealing, and soon enough he unleashes his inner Rick Santorum by penning a devastating yet flowery tell-all letter to Stevie.
So often in life, whenever someone has occasion to yell, we have occasion to cringe at whatever ugly squeak or inglorious croak they happen to emit. The rare display of vocal passion typically besmirches the very emotion it announces. The effect is exacerbated onstage: many a production has been sullied by a shout which is either patently insincere or patently histrionic. Thank God nothing like that happens here: the shouting in this play is first-rate – throaty, sharp, uvula-aflutter (ok, maybe not the uvula part) – particularly on the part of Ashley Johnson ’08 who demonstrates that Hell hath indeed no fury like a woman scorned for a barnyard animal. Johnson plays Martin’s wife Stevie, and man is she pissed. Johnson succeeds both in her flashes of anger and in the cool malice she radiates. At one point, she breaks vessel after vessel (conveniently in abundance and within reach) in what quickly becomes meta-theatrical gag.
Albee’s dialogue is as always enriched by his ironic attunement to the foibles, quirks, and curious shortfalls of our language. Frequently, his characters depart from the matter at hand in order to make side-points about language and its occasionally hilarious inadequacy. For instance, when reading Ross’s letter of the oh-so-shocking content, Stevie can’t help but digress every now and then to make fun of his stilted phrasing.
In Greek the word for tragedy derives from the word for goat. Albee subtitled his play, “Notes toward a definition of tragedy,” and it seems that Albee’s idea of tragedy here is not so much the crush of an unbearable crisis or the tug of an irresolvable conflict as the absurd intrusion of something utterly anomalous. The other characters find Martin’s love for a goat inconceivable and so therefore monstrous and so therefore wrong. Stevie describes Martin’s love for the goat as “outside the rules, doesn’t even relate to the rules.” She morbidly recites a list of catastrophes which she would have been better equipped to handle, awful (or funny) as they may be. Albee has a point here. Somehow if John G. Donne – instead of just plain dying – had announced one day to Joan Didion that he was into goats now, I just don’t see her writing a wonderful book about the experience. That said, The Year of Magical Thinking is a great book, and this is a great play.