Into the abyss

Generic Theater does Albee's Goat
March 26, 2008 12:18:30 PM
The Goat.

In addition to their style and money, prize-winning architect Martin (Alan Huisman) and his wife Stevie (Helen Brock) share a masterfully cultured wit. Their verbal ingenuity is so great that Stevie manages to paraphrase Shakespeare even while she’s confronting the horror of Martin’s newly revealed infidelity. “‘Who is Sylvia?’” she recites, bitter and strident. “‘What is she, that all our goats commend her?’” As I say, that’s a paraphrasing. Stevie is riffing off the actual name of Martin’s mistress, but she has oh so jauntily subbed in “goats” for “swains” — and not because Sylvia is a goatherd. Far from it. And bestiality is just one of several bourgeois taboos against which Martin and Stevie’s devastating sophistication proves no match, in Edward Albee’s hilarious and unsettling The Goat: or, Who is Sylvia?, at the Players’ Ring.

Martin first met Sylvia upstate while shopping for a country house, and has since then been seeing her (and, yes, doing “all that”) frequently. He is a man both in love and in despair, having experienced both an intense “connection” and the existential chaos of shattered social mores. He confesses his ardor and confusion to his old friend Ross (Mike Pomp), who promptly tells Stevie, who makes no secret of it to their gay teenage son Billy (Camden Brown, with impressive range, comic timing, and understatement). What ensues is both erudite and crude, in a script that measures the verbal refinement and supposed tolerance of their culture against a profound and primal loneliness.

The Goat: Or, Who Is Sylvia? | by Edward Albee | Directed by Richard DiMario | Produced by the Players’ Ring and Generic Theater, in Portsmouth, NH | through March 30 | 603.436.8123
Under the sharp direction of Generic Theater’s Richard DiMario, the excellent Huisman and Brock have an intimidating rapport and razor-keen pacing. Both actors convey the resemblance that marriage has wrought of these two savvy people; Martin and Stevie’s tones, phrasing, and gestures complete each other despite themselves. They also beautifully juxtapose their differences — Stevie’s conventional certainties against Martin’s moral confusion. Brock’s Stevie is svelte, fervent, and sonorous in a way that turns deadly when she turns on the bitchery. She is much more sure of things, and thus much more brutal, than Huisman’s Martin, who has a stricken, boyish befuddlement, as if he’s looked into the abyss and back. This contrast is most evident in their eyes and jaws — in Brock’s scathing gazes and hard edges, against the gaping, slack, boyish bewilderment of Huisman’s Martin. Together they deftly navigate between the couple’s rote irony and the agony of stripping it away.

That agility is integral to the success of The Goat; Generic’s production keeps it veering vertiginously between farce and tragedy. On the one hand, Huisman’s Martin comes across as a laughable fool. On the other, he and his plight — taken as the anguished metaphor that it is — are troublingly, sadly human, begging not just sympathy but empathy. The Goat is thus a challenging play for the honest viewer, particularly as it flirts with a form of sexuality even more socially condemned.

Martin, Stevie, and Billy wrangle over human, social, and familial truths in their impeccably urbane Manhattan apartment, smartly designed by DiMario. Particularly delicious is the exoticism of their decor — teak wood tones, screens of African motifs, an Asian box of red and gold silk, a leopard skin print throw-pillow. The irony seems pointed: This urbane liberal couple indulges a blasé affinity for the “exotic,” even as the household harbors an even more curious and primitive cultural Otherness. The joke is a dark one, as artifice, arbitrariness, and emptiness start to show at the seams of culture itself.

Albee’s hyper-cultured characters themselves often cap their aggressive verbosity with a muttered “whatever.” It’s funny, but also a little disconcerting — a juxtaposition of their mastery over the world against a resigned awareness of how little all the careful words add up to. In fact, their intelligence seems more hindrance than help. “God, I wish you were stupid,” Stevie tells him, suffused with contempt and sadness. None of their fancy cultural wits and trappings offer solace; nor, indeed, have they satisfied Martin in the first place.

And who, indeed, is this rare Sylvia who has satisfied him, this cause of such yearning and such domestic holocaust? The source of Stevie’s commendable allusion (The Two Gentlemen of Verona) goes on to limn an ideal: “She excels each mortal thing/upon the dull earth dwelling.” Show me the poor human, goat buggerer or no, who hasn’t hankered after something so impossible.

Megan Grumbling can be reached at


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