Mercedes Ruehl and Bill Pullman inThe Goat, or Who is Sylvia?(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Mercedes Ruehl and Bill Pullman in
The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Edward Albee's new play--and the first he has brought directly to Broadway in 20 years--is about a man in love with a goat that he's named Sylvia. This neatly explains why the playwright straightforwardly calls his work The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? The unusual information comes out relatively early in the proceedings but not before the enamored Martin (Bill Pullman) has a long, extremely coy chat with his best friend Ross (Stephen Rowe) about the object of his current affection.

Architect Martin, about to turn 50, is the youngest recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Prize. He lives with his wife Stevie (Mercedes Ruehl) in a jaw-dropping home--that's if it can be judged by the high-ceilinged living room, decorated in African-influenced modernity, in which the play unfolds. Presumably Martin designed it, but this is actually the handiwork of John Arnone, who has placed over the Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced area a kind of exposed-beam grid. It's broken at several spots, a hint at what's going to happen to the three-member family at the play's center.

After many years of marriage, Martin and Stevie are still gaga about each other, both sexually and intellectually. Touching often and falling easily into fast Mike Nichols-Elaine May-like improvs, they find nothing to mar their bliss. The sense of well being extends to their shared support of adolescent son Billy (Jeffrey Carlson), who's announced that he's homosexual. Although there's a hint of friction between mom and dad and the lad, the trio generally looks to be having a painless, boulevard-comedy life. This, of course, is Albee's point: Martin and Stevie, who frequently congratulate each other on their quick wits, are a civilized couple. Indeed, they're something of an epitome. As such, the complications that ensue in the few hours after Stevie learns of Martin's extra-curricular activity are presented as threatening the core of their being and, by extension, the foundations of civilization as we know it. The meddling Ross has sent Stevie a "you deserve to know" letter and she can't accept his having breached the taboo. Albee is implying that if, as an intelligent and giving person, Stevie can't see a way to share her man with a well-meaning and innocent goat, then whither any of us?

Yes, Albee is saying what Tennessee Williams declared through Hannah in The Night of the Iguana about nothing human disgusting her. With The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, however, Albee has taken Williams' compassionate comment and inflated it into a play that is more or less unbelievable from start to finish. To begin with, in taking on bestiality as a subject, Albee defines it as it may never have previously been defined. According to Martin, he is not only having sex with four-legged Sylvia, he has fallen in love with her. Furthermore, he's convinced that the goat reciprocates his love: Evidently, he can tell by the melting look in her eyes and the way she nuzzles his neck. As he comes clean, no one in the play suggests what rational people everywhere might have suggested: that he might want to consult a therapist. Nor does Martin, who encountered his new heartthrob on a house-hunting jaunt in the countryside, ever mention who owns Sylvia and whether that lucky farmer might already have given her a name.

Since Albee stretches Martin's situation so far past the breaking point, it follows that Stevie's reaction to what's revealed is also outlandish. Trying to take in what she's learned, she presses Martin to tell her the whole story. When he does, she storms around the living room throwing pottery on the floor and saying "Oops." Eventually, Stevie lunges out of the front door--to do what won't be revealed here, but it's fair enough to note that, when she returns, she has found a way to, umm, get Martin's goat. Incidentally, Stevie returns only after Martin and Billy have seized the opportunity to exchange an incestuous kiss and only after Martin has reported a sexual response he once had while bouncing a baby on his knee.

Albee's narrative is meant to register as bold writing, which some viewers may sincerely believe it is. But no. Albee would like to appear intrepid on the dicey subject but he only succeeds at being grandly foolish. It's a failing that shows up in his oeuvre every so often: He lands on an ambiguous and far-fetched premise with which he 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. Tiny Alice is an example. (Perhaps, meaning to signal this play's relationship to that earlier piece, Albee has Martin twice make a remark about a woman whom he calls "large Alice." Wow, an Albee in-joke!) On the other hand, in A Delicate Balance Albee is successful at introducing an unexpected and ambiguous threat to upper class complacency.

Because Albee has made The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? all but thoroughly unconvincing, he and director David Esbjornson needed to find actors who could make a gallant try at rendering it playable. Bill Pullman, forever pushing his straight hair back from his forehead, lends as much abashed and sweaty credence to Martin as he can. This is some challenge, particularly in a sequence during which Martin describes attending an animal-lovers' self-help group and has to talk about a man who brought his goose. Yup, Pullman is game...although "game" might be the wrong adjective for this particular instance.

Mercedes Ruehl lards her dialogue, whether it's lighthearted or heavy-hearted, with conviction, and she lands some of the early laughs squarely. But, as a couple, Pullman and Ruehl are problematic. At first glance, they look as if they've been cast to play George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Ruehl has done the role.) Ruehl's Stevie--and why does the character have that male-sounding name?--seems domineering in a manner at odds with the play. She's stolid in a part that calls for more elegance, for actors along the lines of other Albee players like Rosemary Harris or Marian Seldes. She's not helped by the second of two outfits that costume designer Elizabeth Hope Clancy puts her in: Ruehl is asked to wear a long suede skirt and high leather boots, perhaps because a point is being made about humans taking on animal attributes in a piece about an animal aping human characteristics.

As best friend Ross, Stephen Rowe is edgy, suggesting that the character has been repressing the hots for Martin. Since Albee is questioning civilization's discontents, maybe Rowe is right to hint at homosexual longings by presenting Ross as if he were Michael in The Boys in the Band. Jeffrey Carlson makes his Broadway bow as Billy and acquits himself well, if a bit weepily, in the final father/son bonding sequence.

By the way, Martin, Stevie and Billy inhabit their Architectural Digest-ready domicile without the companionship of a household pet. What a different and more upbeat play The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? might be were a Labrador to romp through just before the final blackout and exchange meaningful glances with Stevie!