Theater lovers are used to the idea that art should influence – and sometimes even upend – our opinions on social and political issues, but we get twitchy when that proposition is turned around. By now, I've become accustomed to Theater on the Edge – the storefront stage in south Orlando associated with Truthful Acting Studios – making me confront challenging issues with their hard-hitting, high-intensity productions. But I wasn't prepared for their take on Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, to make me reconsider a show, and a playwright, that I thought I knew inside out.
In college I became obsessed with the acidic satires of Edward Albee, especially his groundbreaking 1958 one-act The Zoo Story, which was the first show I ever directed. So, when The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? opened on Broadway in 2002, I eagerly attended Albee's caustic comeback. That initial production starred film actor Bill Pullman as Martin Gray, a Pritzker-winning architect at the peak of his career who has it all: an adoring wife, Stevie (created by Mercedes Ruehl); a loving teenage son, Billy; a gorgeous home filled with fine art; and [spoiler alert] a four-legged mistress whom he keeps in a barn.
The supposedly sophisticated Manhattan audience I first experienced the show with visibly squirmed at Albee's sympathetic treatment of bestiality, which (along with necrophilia and pedophilia) is among our society's last unforgivable sins. But I reveled in the author's taboo-busting bravery, and sympathized with the protagonist's compulsion to follow his heart in defiance of conventional morality. In fact, I was so enamored of the show that I spent the next decade looking for an opportunity to bring it to Orlando, and finally co-produced it at the Shakes in 2014 through the Empty Spaces Theatre Co., with John DiDonna and Marty Stonerock in the leading roles.
Half a decade later, producer-director Marco DiGeorge has revived the play with a version that's made me radically rethink what I previously regarded as a modern classic. The dialogue – which is peppered with classical allusions amid the venomous witticisms and perverse poetry – is as literate as ever, but a series of aesthetic decisions put a spin on the script, starting with the production design. Other productions of the play have employed abstracted set designs to emphasize the absurdist theatricality of the story, softening its earthier aspects. Designer Samantha DiGeorge's immaculate upscale living room environment, like her earlier hyperrealistic sets, is realistically grounded to the smallest detail, which makes the shattering later scenes excruciatingly gut-churning.
The second element is the casting. As Stevie, Merritt Anne Greene can smash plates and swig whiskey with the best of them; I'd love to see her as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Theater on the Edge regular Adam Minossora pours his heart into making Billy – a bystander to his parents' marital meltdown – more than just a hormone-addled hysteric. However, leading actor Allan Whitehead, who was excellent in the theater's previous productions of Proof and Orphans, is cast against type as Martin, who is described (and usually played by) a conventionally attractive man in the prime of his life. Here, with his comically obvious comb-over and too-wide tie, he seems more like a second-rate politician than a successful architect, and his absent-mindedness in the opening scene comes across as early-stage Alzheimer's rather than stress-induced distraction. Equally impactful is Mark Anthony Kelly's presence as Martin's confidant, Ross Tuttle. It's a thin role that mostly serves as a conduit for Martin's confessions, but Kelly's barely disguised disgust makes him the audience's surrogate. And by casting the role as African American (even though race is never referred to) it implicitly raises issues of white privilege around Martin's pleas for tolerance.
Indeed, that question is further invoked by the third aspect of this production: its direction. I've praised DiGeorge's Meisner-centered style before for its energy and immediacy, but this time it results in virtually nonstop yelling, from the broadly farcical opening to the melodramatic final blackout. Not only does this leave the actors with nowhere to build toward (and the viewer with aching eardrums), but it actively extinguished any empathy I felt for Martin. Instead of finding myself perversely rooting for his pursuit of unconventional love, this time the scales were lifted from my eyes, and I could barely muster pity for this homophobic mansplaining rapist who constantly shouts down those around him with demands that they listen to him, while never acknowledging the validity of anyone's emotions but his own.
To be honest, I've been cooling on Albee's work for years, ever since his irrationally abusive reaction to Peg O'Keef's brilliant staging of The Zoo Story & The Sandbox led to her leaving Rollins College, but this Who Is Sylvia may have finally gotten my goat. It's a bit of a shock to walk into a play expecting a reunion with one of your favorite radical antiheroes, only to emerge realizing that his previously inspiring progressivism was really just self-serving justification for pursuing personal pleasure at all cost. I'm not about to throw away my collection of Albee scripts quite yet, but in this era of Trump and Biden, I'm a lot less interested in plays premised around arguing that powerful white men should be able to put their body parts wherever they please.