THEATER REVIEW

In 'The Goat' at Rep Stage, Albee's animal magnetism is happily hard to resist

BIRDS AND BEES AND . . . : Bruce Nelson, left, as the adulterous Martin and Travis Hudson as his gay son, Billy.
BIRDS AND BEES AND . . . : Bruce Nelson, left, as the adulterous Martin and Travis Hudson as his gay son, Billy. (Stan Barouh)
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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 10, 2010

Martin, the middle-aged hero doomed for a mighty tumble in "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?," has it all as Edward Albee's delirious, wicked play begins. Martin is a successful architect, happily married, and he still has that glint of love in his eye.

Ah, but the object of his affection -- well, see the drama's title, please, and take it seriously. Albee does, and so does actor Bruce Nelson in Rep Stage's gripping production of this calculated outrage. (The squeamish and the prudish will want to steer clear.)

As Martin, Nelson is almost on another planet. Bill Pullman was winsome and abashed in the role on Broadway, a bad boy you wanted to forgive. Nelson takes a harder stand: He's less interested in charm and tragic inevitability than in blind faith, the kind that makes Martin almost deaf to his splendid wife Stevie but dewy-eyed at the thought of a certain sweet-faced goat.

Nelson's an affable comedian, and it would have been easy to angle for more sympathy. But he and director Kasi Campbell make a stern monument of Martin's obsession, the isolating rapture that makes him snap at people who just don't understand.

That gravity helps the show land with a force appropriate to a play that Albee subtitled "Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy." Yet the show is also explosively funny, with Nelson and Emily Townley (quick and appealing as Stevie) firing punch lines at each other like deadpan vaudevillians. The barbs are arch and very dry; Martin and Stevie are such sophisticates that they even go in for a bit of Noel Coward byplay, and they acknowledge zingers by remarking, "Very good," like tennis rivals praising each other's winners. Nelson and Townley are up to it: The word games are razor-sharp and very entertaining.

The kick is that this is laughter up against the jagged edge of disaster, with Albee whipping the audience between cackles and shocks. The news of Martin's off-the-charts infidelity wrecks relationships in different ways, with nearly everyone and everything going to pieces. (The play is rounded out by Martin and Stevie's gay teenage son, Billy, and Martin's best friend, Ross.) Daniel Ettinger's chic, upscale Manhattan apartment set and Andrea Moore's smashable props come in for hard use as Stevie, in particular, tries to cope with this out-of-the-blue tear in her marriage.

It's saying something for a theater company to take the measure of this play; the comic-tragic blend is exacting, and so are the moral complexities Albee carefully unsettles in us. It's a dense, meticulous 90 minutes -- no intermission, no escape -- and Campbell's production is alert to the tiniest shifts in affection and alienation.

That's what this play is all about, of course, and it's no accident that the bulk of the third act focuses on Billy. The kid may be the most complicated of the play's three rich roles -- Ross, the sanctimonious friend, is the lone flat character -- and Travis Hudson makes an affectingly vulnerable Billy (whose very name gives you a clue to the wry gags Albee enjoys; you can practically hear the playwright chuckling with mischievous pleasure over his work). Albee and David Mamet are our great stage provocateurs, and "The Goat" is a doozy -- a wacko scandal that somehow hits close to home, and a breathtaking piece of theatrical craftsmanship.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?

by Edward Albee. Directed by Kasi Campbell. Lights, Dan Covey; costumes, Kathleen Geldard. With Steven Carpenter. About 90 minutes. Through June 27 at Rep Stage, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia. Call 410-772-4900 or visit http://www.repstage.org.


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