Albee’s ‘The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?’ Is Tragically Hilarious (4.5 Stars)

‘The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?’ – Written by Edward Albee; Directed by Daniel Morris; Scenic Design by Kevin Deane Parker; Costume Design by Barbra Crowther. Presented by Bad Habit Productions at Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, Deane Hall, 527 Tremont St., Boston through August 23rd.

Back when I was a teenager, I went to a drive-in double feature one night with my friends, where one of the movies playing was Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask”. Based on Dr. David Reuben’s bestseller of the same name, it was made before Allen started doing “serious” films (1972), and was a series of of vignettes that answered questions from the book. It was a scream. But for me, the weirdest (and funniest) segment was one in which Gene Wilder, playing a happily married New York physician, falls in love with his newest patient: a sheep from Armenia named Daisy. The bizarre romance ruins his life, and at the end of the piece we see him, heartbroken and homeless, desperately sucking on a bottle of Woolite to deaden the pain. The absurdity of the situation, coupled with Wilder’s remarkable ability to convince us of his earnestness, elevated the sketch to the level of genius for me.

In Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?”, now being skillfully staged by Bad Habit Productions at the Boston Center for the Arts, the situation – a man having a love affair with an animal – is the same (with an architect standing in for Wilder and a goat replacing Daisy), but the intent of the piece is less about generating laughs (although there are plenty), and more about the tragic consequences of violating an extreme social taboo.

The affair (as difficult a concept as that is to swallow given the object of desire) conducted by architect Martin Gray (Steven L. Emanuelson ) can’t really be blamed on some sort of midlife crisis, because even though the play begins on his 50th birthday, his life is still on a decidedly upward trajectory. He has just been awarded the equivalent of the the Pulitzer Prize (the Pritzker) for architecture, and has been selected to design a multi-billion dollar project; his relationship with Stevie (Veronica Anastasio Wiseman ), his wife of 20-plus years, still seems loving and vibrant; and their son Billy (Luke Murtha), who recently announced that he is gay, seems reasonably well-adjusted (for a teenager).

So when Stevie notes that Martin seems overly distracted and he responds by telling her that he’s having affair with a goat named Sylvia, she thinks it a joke and laughs as she exits. “You try to tell them; You try to be honest. What do they do?  They laugh at you,” says Martin, and up until this point in the play we’re not sure if he’s serious either. But when his best friend Ross (Dale J. Young) comes to interview him for a television segment he’s producing, the cat comes wholly out of the bag, and what follows is a series of highly animated discussions that are all invariably infused with the phrase, “but you’re f*#ing a goat!” at some juncture. Which really isn’t the point, because as Albee show us, the play is just as much about betrayal, blind love, and the unanswered question of “how could anyone do such a thing?” – all of which could also be said of a someone who was romantically involved with his 14-year old babysitter (but with a whole lot less revulsion from many quarters). Some taboos are obviously more egregious than others.

Despite the controversial subject matter, this works well as both tragedy and comedy. There are some terrific performances from this uniformly solid cast, particularly Wiseman as Stevie, who manages to deliver some side-splitting lines through her seething rage. As Martin, Emanuelson manages to make his character sympathetic, particularly as he tries to explain how the affair came about to both Stevie and Ross, and he makes it possible to believe that he really is torn between his love for his wife and Sylvia the goat. The set design by Kevin Deane Parker  is beautifully done, so it’s almost a shame to see it mostly destroyed as Stevie unloads her anger by smashing nearly every object on the set that’s not nailed down.

If you’re on the fence about seeing this challenging and surprisingly funny work, I urge you to just go. You won’t regret it. It’s not only great entertainment, you may even think a little differently about what really should be taboo in this society. For more info, go to: