The lights go up on a spacious, contemporary living room with modern art, black-trimmed wood furniture and stunning red carpeting. By the time they go down, the art has been smashed, and the wood furniture lies skewed across the room. In between, a man tries explaining his extramarital affair with a goat.
So evolves Arena Stage’s The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? an eye-opening exploration of love with a dizzying mix of drama, absurdist comedy and Greek tragedy. Martin (Stephen Schnetzer) is a 50 -year-old architect who has just received the coveted Pritzker prize for his work; he has a beautiful wife, Stevie (Kate Levy) and a great son (Bradford William Anderson). His life is perfect–until he falls in love with Sylvia. Torn by his two loves, Martin confides in his crass, cynical best friend Ross (Rick Foucheux) who is thrilled until he finds out that Sylvia is a goat. Horrified, he writes to Stevie about her husband’s actions, which in turn sparks a confrontation of epic proportions. And that’s only the beginning.
The brilliance of Edward Albee’s play is its candor. Director Wendy C. Goldberg molds its honesty – after all, you don’t get much more honest than confessing your love for a farm animal – into something paradoxically, nonsensically real. The combination of drama and farce is everything entertainment should be. When Billy, Martin’s teenage son, declares that he will go upstairs and cry in bed with a broken heart over the current situation, and his parents stop screaming at each other long enough to warmly applaud his tirade as he stalks offstage, the only word that comes to mind is “absurd.”
Martin and Stevie’s ensuing altercation is a bloody battle for the ages. As she demands an explanation from her increasingly tongue-tied husband, the dialogue’s escalation of ridiculousness and tragedy seesaw accordingly. It becomes apparent that this is a play about the limitations of love, and that some things can be forever damaged beyond repair. Now, enter the absurdity. Stevie and Martin stop to correct each other’s grammar and give congratulations for witty barbs in the midst of berating one another. She smashes vases, he yells at her for not understanding that he’s in love with the goat he’s sleeping with and the resulting chaos is nothing short of delicious.
However, The Goat is not without a dark side. The “Medea”-esque revenge of Stevie is an appropriately disturbing end to such a provocative play. In fact, much of the production (absurdist streak and all) is so encompassing that the audience feels like an intruder, accidentally stumbling across a room of people whose lives are falling apart. The pink elephant feeling is both unsettling and refreshing. When the curtain has gone down and the house lights turned back up, you feel as if you’ve seen something from which you can never turn back – and that’s just the way Albee wants it.
“The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?” plays at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St., S.W., until April 17. Visit www.arenastage.org for information.