The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? (Red Herring Productions – Columbus, OH)

“Did you ever think you’d come back from your splendid life, walk into your living room, and find you had no life left?” That’s the question Stevie Gray asks her husband Martin after learning of his infidelity in Edward Albee’s The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?, a daring dark comedy involving infidelity, betrayal, love, and beastiality, presented by Red Herring Productions in the Studio One Theatre at the Vern Riffe Center for just two weekends. This is the kind of play and production that in less than two hours can provide fodder for days of debates.

Martin Gray is a successful and celebrated architect, with an engaging wife, Stevie, and child, Billy, and something troubling on his mind. When his best friend, Ross, comes over to interview him for a television show, Martin is distant, eventually divulging that he is having an improbable affair with a goat named Sylvia; and thus begins a chain of events that rock his world and the world of those around him.

 

Photo: Matt Slaybaugh – Tim Browning (Martin) and Sonda Staley (Stevie)
 
Tim Browning plays the conflicted and troubled Martin Gray, and he is dangerous on the stage; he is so real and present in the part that he could easily turn the play into a one-man show, something that I could see happening without such a strong supporting cast around him. Mr. Browning is honest and thoughtful, so appealing that he is able to wrangle the audience’s sympathy for a character who admits to performing quite an unsympathetic act, probably because of his skill of instilling such humanity into his performance, one without judgement. Mr. Browning plays Martin as completely normal, not as quirky like I saw Bill Irwin do in the same part on Broadway in 2002 (with Sally Field as his co-star; they were both part of the replacement cast once Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl had left the original company), and the net result is a performance with far more nuance and emotion than I experienced with the play previously. So touching is Mr. Browning that I found myself revising my opinion of the material, as I originally thought of it as substandard Albee – not so anymore.

Sonda Staley as Stevie Gray holds her own next to her onstage hubby, quick on her feet with an immediacy to her responses that propels every scene that she is in forward. She’s also good with props, even when things go slightly awry (I had the pleasure of attending both the dress rehearsal and opening night performances, witnessing Ms. Staley deftly navigate minor snafus on both occasions, the audience oblivious to any problems). “How could you love me when you love so much less?” she asks of her husband, the same question surely anyone who has ever been cheated on has thought; when Ms. Staley asks it, you want to comfort her because she is so affecting, though she proves as the play goes on that she has strength enough to face this situation on her own.

 

Photo: Matt Slaybaugh – (left to right) Jesse Massaro (Billy), Tim Browning (Martin), and Todd Covert (Ross)
 
Jesse Massaro plays the Grays’ son, Billy, a gay teenager with angst to spare. Though I’m not a fan of the eye liner and emo look given to the character, Mr. Massaro is strong yet vulnerable, a tough duality to play without coming off as unstable or trite. Todd Covert is Ross Tuttle, Martin’s best friend who betrays his confidence, often voicing the opinion of the audience when confronted with anything outside of his comfort zone. Mr. Covert has the least material to work with out of this ensemble of four, but he manages to firmly stand his ground in this cocky and judgmental part, quick to summarize everything into a sound byte, as if everything were so easy. If Martin’s infidelity were with a woman, would Ross have kept the secret? Would he if it was with a man? We know where he stands on the subject of goats.

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III
 
This extraordinary cast is guided by director Michael Garret Herring, who has a firm grasp on what does and doesn’t work, even extending to the mostly black, white, and gray color scheme of the costumes and set; it’s as if Mr. Herring is daring us to see all of the gray between what is right (white) and wrong (black). Aided by terrific lighting by Jarod Wilson (pay close attention to the use of colors on the backdrop and how they comment on and forecast the action) and clear sound by Dave Wallingford (the people who make sure we can hear what is going on are too often overlooked), this is an all-around quality production.

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? covers topics so dire and in such a dramatic fashion that it crosses over into dark comedy, so abhorrent in content that one can only laugh in response. This isn’t a play that advocates acceptance of beastiality or any other socially unacceptable conventions; it is a play about betrayal, the kind we can perpetrate against others as well as ourselves given just the right circumstances. Martin Gray surely never saw his infatuation with a goat as being a viable option, let alone something that could derail his life so completely. It begs the question: how well do we know those around us, and how well do we know ourselves?

Highly recommended – catch this one before all that is left of it are the discussions it will provoke.

**** out of ****

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? continues through to October 10th in the Studio One Theatre (4th floor) at the Vern Riffe Center located at 77 South High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.redherring.info/the-goat-or-who-is-sylvia/

A note about the title: As licensed by Dramatists Play Service, Inc., it is The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? Other resources, such as Ibdb.com, playbill.com, and nytimes.com (a review of the 2002 Broadway production), give the title as The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? Other resources remove the comma entirely or, better yet, include one before and after the “or”. The advertising for this production follows the lead of the Dramatists Play Service for the title, even though the program alternately lists it without a comma on the cover as well as with a comma in the earlier spot on the insert. The Collected Plays of Edward Albee: 1978-2003 lists the title as The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? as well, and so that is the way I referred to it in this essay.

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