No kidding: Elizabeth Heflin and Todd Waitein The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?(Photo: Jim Caldwell)
No kidding: Elizabeth Heflin and Todd Waite
in The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?
(Photo: Jim Caldwell)
It's the perfect life. Martin is a world-famous architect at the peak of his profession. He is married to a beautiful woman to whom he has always been faithful. He loves his teenage son. He has had the same best friend for 40 years. He lives in an exquisitely tasteful home, amid a collection of elegant modern furniture and objets d' art. Something has to give -- and because we have entered the world of Edward Albee and are in the land of The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, it does so, spectacularly.

What changes Martin's life? The easy answer, the one that anybody with any interest in the theater probably knows by now, is that Martin is having an affair with a goat he calls Sylvia. What's not so easy to answer is, "Why?"

The Goat, which recently finished its Broadway run, is receiving its regional premiere at the Alley Theatre as part of a 75th birthday tribute to Albee. While George and Martha battle in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on the Houston theater's Main Stage, The Goat -- on view downstairs on the Neuhaus Stage -- proves that Albee hasn't lost his power to provoke. But this new work goes beyond being merely disturbing. At its best, The Goat forces audiences to question the motivations of the characters we are watching, and, by extension, ourselves.

So, why would anybody destroy a perfect life? Take a good look, Albee seems to be saying, because all is not what it seems. Martin may have built a life of achievement, but it is a house of cards. (Is yours, too?) Martin proclaims enduring love for his wife, yet he betrays her in a beastly way. (How have you deeply hurt someone you love?) Martin thinks he can trust his best friend with his worst secret, but the friend betrays him. (Sound familiar?) Martin loves his son but, at heart, despairs because the boy is gay. (Is your child the person you want him to be?)

Early in the play, Martin's confidant, Ross, comes to film an interview of his best friend. It's for a show called "People Who Matter," and now that Martin has won his profession's top award and snared a lucrative contract, he's certainly perceived to be in that category. But Martin has also just turned 50, is worried about losing his memory, and gives only listless answers to his friend's questions. Put on your "public image," Ross tells Martin -- but there is only one image that interests Martin now, and that is the memory of first looking into Sylvia's eyes. This he tells his amazed friend and, later, his wife Stevie.

But Martin never explains what he saw in those eyes. Was it love? Tenderness? Did he begin his affair with Sylvia out of subconscious disgust for his "perfect" life and a need to destroy it with a bestial act? Is Sylvia his scapegoat or the first being through which he can truly express the deepest feelings in his heart? Albee keeps us wondering right up through the play's final, awful moments and beyond.

Pam MacKinnon, who directed Albee's The Play About the Baby at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, brings a sure hand to this production. She knows how to balance the playwright's considerable wit with the serious and even gruesome aspects of the story. In general, she guides her actors to effective performances, despite some clumsy blocking.

As Martin, Todd Waite is best in the more emotional scenes. He's not as well suited to the rhythms of Albee's shorter, matter-of-fact lines but he gets to the heart of a speech when it matters. Ultimately, he makes Martin a sympathetic character -- although his final, primal howl is perhaps not as convincing as it might be.

Elizabeth Heflin ably communicates Stevie's transition from a stylish, upper-class housewife into a raging, vengeful Fury who cannot understand her husband's transgression. As Martin's blunt-speaking friend Ross, James Belcher brings an engaging raunchiness to his early scenes, with just the right hint of the manipulation to come. And Matt Hune is touchingly vulnerable as Martin and Stevie's confused son, Billy (a bit of goatish humor in that name).

With a tasteful combination of African art, modern pottery, and black leather furniture, Tony Straiges has created an appropriately elegant environment for Albee's beleaguered architect and his family. Just as stylish are the costumes, designed by Daryl A. Stone. And Kevin Rigdon's white-hot lighting gives the production a starkly contemporary feel. But the best thing about The Goat is that the play raises ancient questions about how we should live, who we should love, and how we can lose everything in a moment.