Bill Irwin and Sally Fieldin The Goat(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Bill Irwin and Sally Field
in The Goat
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The Goat had legs, but she can't run much longer. Edward Albee's Tony-winning play will finish its Broadway run on December 15 after 309 performances and 23 previews.

Even by Albee's standards, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? provoked considerable controversy when it began previews at the Golden Theatre in February. In fact, many theater people initially refused to believe early reports that Albee's first Broadway play in 20 years was about a mostly conventional American husband who falls in love with -- not merely indulges in heavy petting with, but falls in love with -- a barnyard animal.

By March, when the four-character play opened, most theater cognoscenti knew that the work did, in fact, deal with what some nervously referred to as "animal husbandry." Many playgoers' initial response to the piece was more or less mirrored by the feelings of David Finkle, who wrote in his TheaterMania review that The Goat has "an ambiguous and far-fetched premise with which [Albee] attempts to demonstrate the shocking depth of society's ills but, at the end of the day (or play), the result is pretentious and ineffective." Still, artful performances by Bill Pullman, as the husband who wants to experience the best of the bestial, and Mercedes Ruehl, as the woman who eventually gets her husband's goat, kept (most) theatergoers from dismissing the play as a somewhat bizarre skit. The production was directed by David Esbjornson, who helmed Albee's The Play About the Baby Off-Broadway less than a year earlier.

Some reviewers, determined to get beneath the surface, suggested the author was using the inter-species coupling as a metaphor for other sexual proclivities -- possibly intergenerational sex, a theory made somewhat more plausible if one substitutes the word "kid" for "goat." Others pointed out that the word "tragedy" comes from the Greek "goat song." Even so, the play had a hard time corralling the public at first: A month after the opening it was playing to less than 40% capacity of the Golden, one of the five smallest houses on Broadway.

As the run proceeded, however, jokes about "creature comforts" and "b-a-a-a humbuggery" tapered off, audiences picked up, and the play gained respect. In fact, by the time the awards season was over, it had raked in the Tony, New York Drama Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards. (It opened nine days too late for Pulitzer consideration.) Meanwhile, as befits a man who has said that "the less an audience knows about a play, the better," Albee did not provide clues beyond the statement, "It's about four human beings and a goat...and it involves relationships." (This is a truer statement than Pinter's explanation for Old Times -- "It's about the weasel under the cocktail table" -- but, ultimately, no more illuminating.)

The show gained momentum in September, when Bill Irwin and Sally Field took over for Pullman and Ruehl. It was the Broadway debut for two-time Oscar winner Field and Irwin's first dramatic role after a career spent playing physical comedy in such shows as Fool Moon and Largely/New York, prompting reviewers from The New York Times and other papers to revisit the show. Both performers got raves from the Times. They were originally announced through December 8, but producers Elizabeth Ireland McCann, Daryl Roth, Carole Shorenstein Hays, Terry Allen Kramer, Scott Rudin, Bob Boyett, Scott Nederlander and SINE/ZPI added an additional week through December 15. Original cast members Stephen Rowe and Jeffrey Carlson continued to play the other two roles -- the couple's best friend and son, respectively -- when Field and Irwin took over, but Carlson will leave the company on November 24. Todd Swenson (Falling Awake) will play the role for the final 16 performances.