When Bestiality Turns Boring

Whenever my friends and I used to do comedic improv, it was understood when a scene was over—it was when we descended into discussions of sex with animals. The introduction of bestiality symbolized an exhaustion of creativity. It’s just too easy: juxtaposition and titillation equal humor. Yet when the subject is tackled not as a plot twist, but as a main topic, for a new play with no less an author than Edward Albee, attention must be paid. Could Albee, the master of exploring the absurd to gain insight into the mundane, have found a path to stinging profundity through bestiality? Had he combined the best of both worlds—serious commentary with some animal sex jokes thrown in along the way? The disappointing answer is no. Though its aspirations may be high, The Goat or Who is Sylvia? quickly succumbs to its subject matter and sacrifices a chance at the sublime in order to wallow in easy mediocrity.

The first hour of the ninety-minute, intermissionless play derives virtually all of its humor from the shock value of the existence of man-goat love. Martin, played by the affable film actor Bill Pullman is a successful architect who enjoys a still passionate marriage to Stevie, portrayed by the Tony and Academy Award-recipient Mercedes Ruehl. They have a lovely modern apartment, a lovely gay son and a lovely well-financed lifestyle. The applecart is violently upset, however, when it is revealed Martin is having an affair. With Sylvia. Who is a goat. Wow.

Such a revelation should be the starting point for the play, but instead it turns out to be its stalling point. From its few well-constructed moments, one can glimpse that it’s supposed to be a play where the surface level involves unspeakable sexual acts between man and goat, but the real meaning has to do with acceptance, normalcy, family and love. The problem, though, is that it’s not actually about those concepts- it’s about bestiality. And it’s also about how many different ways the gifted Ruehl can berate her husband for having sex with a goat.

The most serious strike facing the show, though, is not its lack of insightfulness or originality—it is its lack of humor. Sex with animals is funny because it shocks or, more to the point, because it’s meant to shock. But it’s tough to wring shock value from material that’s no longer shocking. Jerry Springer has covered this material with regularity. Albee’s own envelope-pushing theater of the absurd has helped bring us to the point of no trumping taboos.

It also doesn’t much help the cause of humor that the play spends far too much time posing as a comedy of manners, forcing Martin’s family to crack defensive jokes about his inexplicably bad-mannered actions. If the point is that no matter how hard you try to understand or explain love, you just can’t do it, there’s got to be a better way than having Stevie beg for an explanation then cut him off every few seconds to smash furniture. Her defensive humor never seems sufficiently defensive, and the punch lines just aren’t satisfactory.

There are, however, flashes of Albee’s wry verbal wit and sneaky ability to shift the foundation of his fictional world. When trying to sort out the details of an affair, Martin’s best friend Ross (portrayed by American Repertory Theatre founding member Stephen Rowe) questions, “Sylvia––the goat who you’re fucking?” “Don’t say that,” responds Martin curtly, before correcting him, “whom.”

Martin’s obsession with words- with the precision of expression is fascinating. It hints at a compulsive need to order and to label that might help explain why he finds it so difficult to resist an attraction that defies any sort of conventional classification. When Martin’s son Billy (portrayed by an utterly sympathetic Jeffrey Carlson, who turns in a near-perfect performance, marred only by the hand gesture he apparently feels necessary to label his character as homosexual), transfers his feelings of rage and need towards his father into a sexual embrace, it begs disturbing questions about the boundaries of love. Only towards the end of the play do such details and moments begin to crystallize. Yet before they have a chance to redeem the opening hour of far-too-glib quips, the play concludes.

The Goat is a supreme frustration. It offers the promise of something so much greater than it delivers. For a man who usually asks difficult questions and evokes fantastic images, Albee has settled for mild taunts and thorough something. If anything, The Goat should be remembered as a statement in irony. In going for the easy joke, Albee missed the big picture—and the humor.


The Goat or Who is Sylvia?

Written by Edward Albee

Directed by David Esbjornson

Starring Bill Pullman & Mercedes Ruehl

John Golden Theatre, New York

Open-ended run