FAMILY CRISIS: Stevie (Ashley Johnson, left) has just read a letter describing her husband's infidelity (with a goat!), as husband Martin (Joshua Williams, right) looks on in despair, and son Billy (Shawn Fennell) expresses his shock and anger in Theatre Intime's production of Edward Albee's The Goat or Who is Sylvia? — playing at Theatre Intime through April 8.

Edward Albee's "The Goat" Explores Deepest Societal Taboos; Intense Domestic Drama Delivers Plentiful Humor and Horror

Donald Gilpin

Martin, about to be interviewed for a TV show called People Who Matter, is, at fifty years old, at the top of his game. He has just won the Pritzker Prize, architecture's highest award, and has been chosen to design a two hundred billion dollar World City of the future.

Martin, his vibrant, adoring wife Stevie, and their gay son Billy live a life that exudes urbanity, sophistication, and success.

The TV interviewer Ross is an old friend and former schoolmate of Martin. These are well educated, refined human beings. Their dialogue is witty and sophisticated, as they play games with language and make jokes out of pointing out mixed metaphors and correcting each other's grammar.

But, as always in Edward Albee's world, the harmonious surfaces are brittle and deceptive, and it is not far into the first of three uninterrupted scenes of The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? (2002), currently playing at Theatre Intime, that Martin — distracted, forgetful, troubled — is sharing with Ross the secret of an extra-marital relationship he has been carrying on for six months.

At this point, the play and the dynamics in the theater become very strange indeed. Love triangles and marital infidelity are hardly new subjects for theater, but here the object of Martin's affections happens to be a goat — yes, an actual barnyard goat, and neither the audience nor the other characters in the play quite know how to respond.

On one level, it seems like a good joke, and those in the audience who know what's coming before Martin finally works up to the moment when he shows Ross a photo of the beloved Sylvia, are smiling knowingly, chuckling to themselves, in on the punch line that is soon to shock Ross and the unknowing members of the audience.

'The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?' plays April 6 through April 8, with performances at 8 p.m. and an additional 2 p.m. matinee on April 8. For tickets, call (609) 258-1742 or visit or

At the same time, however, there is something unsettling here. Martin is an intelligent, serious, sensitive, admirable character. In this scene, and in the second scene when Martin confronts his wife and their 17-year-old son, the laughter begins to catch in the throat. The nervous guffaws are more sporadic. Martin is truly in love with this goat — and also with his wife. The family crisis is — not quite believable, perhaps, but real. Mr. Albee does not hold back in exploiting the opportunity for humorous word play about sex with animals, but deeper purposes and a prevailing seriousness become more and more apparent as the play progresses.

Stevie is, understandably, outraged and angry. She alternates between quiet determination to come to terms with the baffling new realities of her life with Martin and loud fury. Billy, also torn between extremes of despair and anger, retreats to his room for much of scene two, emerging in the final scene, after his mother's exit, to attempt some sort of understanding and reconciliation with his father. The language is raw. The subject matter is not for children, or for anyone who is prone to squeamishness in the face of the most basic taboos of our society. But besides amusing and shocking his audience, and forcing us to pay attention to subjects that are forbidden even in the most liberal spheres of our society, what is Mr. Albee up to here? What is this play really about?

The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? seems, most essentially, to be about tolerance for our fellow human beings in all their human, even aberrant behavior. As the four characters grapple with the fact of Martin's love of the goat, they respond in different ways. The liberal, hypocritical Ross, who is willing to condone all sorts of other sordid sexual activities and breaches of business ethics, is ruthless and judgmental towards his oldest friend. He is unable to show any understanding, sympathy, or even tolerance for Martin's predicament. Stevie is too hurt and angry to see beyond her need for revenge. "You have brought me down, and, Christ!, I'll bring you down with me!" Billy, who has spent considerable emotional and psychological energy in reconciling his homosexuality with his father's deep-seated disapproval, overcomes his initial repulsion in learning of his father's secret to allow his love for his father to bring acceptance and forgiveness.

It is in the character of Billy, apparently so named to suggest some correspondence with the goat, that Albee's play most directly leads the audience to consider the taboo of homosexuality in comparison to The Goat's more immediate issue of bestiality. In observing the shocked reactions to the revelation of Martin's "problem" (which he and the playwright refuse to characterize as inherently a problem), the audience recognizes many reactions — of spouse, family, and friends — that are similar to typical homophobic responses to the coming out of a gay man.

Ultimately this play registers an appeal for tolerance, love, and human understanding, even in the face of society's strictest attitudes and taboos, even when, as Stevie says, the behavior in question is outside "the rules of the game."

Under the able direction of Princeton University sophomore Whitney Mosery, the undergraduate Intime cast takes on this demanding material with maturity, energy and focus. Twenty-year-olds, no matter how talented, are not always able to make the stretch to portray convincing adults of their parents' generation in serious situations, but this company of four is consistently on target and credible. Ashley Johnson as Stevie and Joshua Williams as Martin are especially strong and effective in working through the wide range of emotions that this wife and husband experience during the course of the play. Martin in his bewilderment and isolation and Stevie in her pain and anguish are powerfully affecting and memorable. Shawn Fennell's Billy, awkward, angry, struggling with his own identity and with his father's shocking news, portrays forcefully this highly vulnerable and sympathetic teenager, though the clarity of his diction suffered a couple of lapses on the evening I attended. Max Staller as Ross, somewhat less intense and somewhat less believable in his age stretch, is nonetheless an effective foil to Martin and a strong supporting figure. Mr. Williams has also designed the well-appointed, detailed living room set, which fittingly manifests the affluence of Martin and Stevie. Decorations include an array of art work with a suggestive flower motif and an assortment of glass bowls and ceramic jars for Stevie to shatter as the conflict heats up.

Ms. Mosery keeps the pace moving briskly, finds the humor and the poignancy in this play, and succeeds in keeping the tension taut. Mr. Albee's dialogue at times moves slowly or repetitively, particularly as characters struggle to express the inexpressible, and his extreme plot at times strains credulity. Amidst the humor, however, Ms. Mosery and company never fail to take this play and its important issues seriously.

Not just poor Sylvia, but Billy, and Martin too, are apparently scapegoats for the sins of an intolerant, convention-bound society. Edward Albee, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes and an additional Tony Award for this one, here again — in the tradition of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1963), Tiny Alice (1964) and other great plays before and since — dares to ask the important, difficult questions and probe the dark sides of our lives and our world. Bravo to Ms. Mosery and Theatre Intime for confronting, so bravely and successfully, this important, difficult work.

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