AISLE SAY San Francisco

Notes Toward a
Definition Of Tragedy

By Edward Albee
Directed by Richard E.T. White
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Geary Theater
415 Geary St. at Mason, San Francisco / (415) 749-2228

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Watching a seemingly ideal marriage unravel can be painful, but it also can be hilarious in the American Conservatory Theater production of Edward Albee's 2002 "The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia: Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy." As so well directed, or perhaps orchestrated, by Richard E.T. White, it's a thought-provoking, disturbing play that's sure to be followed by lots of discussion.

Set in a tasteful but comfortable living room that reflects its occupants' affluence (set by Kent Dorsey), "The Goat" opens with a successful architect, Martin Gray (Don R. McManus), and his wife, Stevie (Pamela Reed), discussing his imminent interview with Ross (Charles Shaw Robinson), a TV personality and Martin's longtime friend. Martin, an architect who is turning 50, has just won the Pritzker Prize, the highest honor in his profession, and received a commission to design a landmark building in the Midwest. And as is revealed during the play, he and Stevie are deeply in love with and cherish each other even after 22 years of marriage. Nevertheless, he seems distracted, forgetful.

The interview with Ross goes so poorly that he cuts it short and persuades Martin to reveal his secret: He's in love with Sylvia, and he shows Ross her picture. The emotions that cross Robinson's face as Ross comprehends that Martin is serious, that the goat in the picture really is his beloved Sylvia.

In the second scene (the three-scene play runs without intermission), Stevie and their 17-year-old son, Billy (Joseph Parks), who is gay, learn about Sylvia through a letter from Ross. Thus follows an intense, messy conversation between Stevie and Martin as she demands an explanation and he haltingly tries to tell her how he fell in love with Sylvia even though he still loves Stevie as much as ever. The final scene involves all four characters and a shocking, tragic ending, complete with the knowledge that the marriage and family have been damaged beyond repair.

Albee laces his script with numerous puns and literary allusions, starting with the title ("Who is Sylvia" comes from Shakespeare's "Two Gentlemen of Verona") and continuing with, among others, a recollection of a prostitute he met in college and nicknamed Large Alice (as opposed to Albee's own "Tiny Alice"). He also has created four believable, articulate characters who are expertly enacted by the ACT cast. McManus as Martin is unpretentious and caring, but he's also naive as he tries to rationalize his romantic, sexual affair with a goat. Reed paces herself well as Stevie goes through the agonies of shock, outrage, anger and sorrow as she begins to comprehend the enormity of what she sees as Martin's betrayal. Parks makes Billy a mix of a boy who still needs and loves both parents and a young man who stands up for himself, lashes out at his father and tries to protect his mother. Robinson's Ross is a caring friend who also symbolizes society's condemnation of bestiality.

There are no easy answers or explanations to what's really going on in the play. Even though the action proceeds in a relatively straightforward manner, the underlying metaphors and symbolisms require much thought and discussion. That's what makes this play so intriguing and so memorable.

Character-specific costumes by Beaver Bauer, lighting by Peter Maradudin and sound by Garth Hemphill enhance this memorable production.

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