Human relations seemed so straightforward and basically workable before Edward Albee started looking into them.
In 1961, the playwright dug so deeply beneath the skin to expose gnawing marital complexities in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" that audiences felt as naked and wounded as the characters by the end. Four decades later, Albee peeled away still more layers and, if anything, revealed even more uncomfortable relationships in "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?"
It wouldn't be surprising to see people with dazed looks stumbling out of Howard Community College's Studio Theatre after performances of Rep Stage's first-rate production of the Tony Award-winning "The Goat." This isn't your everyday theatrical experience. Despite the fact that you can't help but laugh a lot of the time — there is some awfully funny, biting and linguistically clever material in this 2002 play — you're ultimately left in a very dark, unsettling place. You could call it a comedy with claws.
Albee sets up a seemingly absurd situation: A well-off, super-educated, 50-year-old architect and devoted family man named Martin has just won the Pritzker Prize. Instead of laurels, he has been, um, resting on a horned creature he has named Sylvia. When his best friend, Ross, stops by to interview him about the prize, Martin ends up spilling the news of his secret goat love. That news soon spreads.
In a compact 90-minute span, the play moves from one combustible moment to the next, and the explosions don't always hit exactly where you think they might. The collateral damage isn't necessarily confined to the stage, either.
The lovely, up-market catalogue items adorning the chic urban flat that Martin shares with his wife, Stevie, and their teenage son, Billy, aren't the only things threatened by the revelation of the architect's pastoral designs. Albee targets conventional thinking about all sexual taboos and restrictions. He raises subjects that just don't get discussed in polite society, even of the most liberal-minded variety, and he pushes every button he can in the process.
I suppose that opponents of same-sex marriage who invariably warn that sanctioned bestiality is the next step might think "The Goat" underlines their absurd argument. But Albee is toying here with everybody, with any number of attitudes and beliefs about sex and physical stimulation (at one point, Martin pathetically resorts to the we're-all-animals argument).
Ultimately, the play's gay angle — Billy is out and warmly accepted — gets an extra twist, too, during a killer theatrical moment that is pure Albee. It creates an effect nearly as startling as the plot's creepy variation on animal husbandry.
There are times when the "The Goat" reveals a creak or two of contrivance, and moments when you suspect that the playwright didn't have a firm grasp on where he was going or why. Some of the jokes are a little obvious, some outbreaks of wordplay a little forced. But even if not quite on the brilliant level of "Virginia Woolf," the work has quite a punch. It can't be dismissed lightly.
Rep Stage certainly makes a strong case for it. The cast, incisively molded by director Kasi Campbell, offers a first-rate demonstration of theatrical skill and communicative impact.
Bruce R. Nelson is almost spookily believable as Martin, masterfully detailing the transition from the effete air of a minor celebrity to the passionate, rationalizing mess of a man. This is acting on a high, affecting level. Emily Townley likewise inhabits the role of Stevie, the woman who didn't fall in love with Martin years before, but "rose to love." Townley persuasively limns the character's journey from flip to flattened, at one point letting out a primal scream that can probably be heard in Ellicott City.
Steven Carpenter does a colorful job as Ross. And Travis Hudson captures the hurt and confusion of Billy with admirable nuance, achieving genuinely moving results in the final scene.
Daniel Ettinger's set design provides a stylishly manicured space for the foundation-shifting collision between normality and abnormality that Albee has so provocatively slipped into "The Goat."
If you go
Rep Stage's production of "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?" runs through June 27 at the Studio Theatre, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Tickets are $12 to $30 (pay whatever you can on Wednesdays). Call 410-772-4900 or go to http://www.repstage.org.