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Who is Sylvia? Our old oracle Shakespeare tells us that Love himself looked into her eyes to find a remedy for his blindness—and finding it, he decided to dwell there. Edward Albee, a newer voice but no less an oracle, tells us she’s a goat—a farm animal in whose eyes a lovestruck man with everything to lose loses himself and all he is. The very mention of bestiality will set a few teeth on edge, to be sure, but in Arena Stage’s slick if ultimately underthought production of The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, director Wendy C. Goldberg and a capable cast illustrate clearly enough that Albee’s got more than one game going—that he’s got points to make about betrayal and revenge, about the limits of tolerance and the boundaries of what constitutes tragedy. And that, among other things, he may be saying something about why he rarely says anything about what his shows “mean.”

The 2002 Tony winner for best play and the target of many a disgusted commentator’s ire, The Goat proves remarkably funny on the page—genuinely, caustically, brutally so—headed toward a conclusion that might have been scripted by some particularly grim and unforgiving Greek. (Albee’s nothing if not a craftsman, and he knows the startled laughs give us room to breathe, make space in our heads and hearts for the roil of revulsion and recognition he wants to inspire.) The lighthearted opening, in fact, might have come from the Autopen of Neil Simon, so blithe and breezy is the banter between absent-minded architect Martin (Stephen Schnetzer) and his sleek, chic wife, Stevie (Kate Levy). A journalist friend is due—apparently Martin has turned 50, won the Pritzker Prize, and landed an immense commission all in the same week—and Stevie bustles about, proudly arranging flowers in the sterile urban living room of Neil Patel’s set. They trade affectionate quips, two Noel Coward characters living a dream life in a dream home, and then Albee lets fall the first clue to what’s on his mind: Martin, his wife notices, is genuinely distracted, nagged by “the sense that everything going right is a sure sign that everything’s going wrong, of all the awful to come.”

It’s a joke, but then again it’s not. Listen as Martin fumbles to explain his unexplainable new passion to the best friend (Rick Foucheux) who’ll shortly betray the confidence to Stevie and you’ll hear more than one reference to the geography in which he met his bovid paramour: Driving in the country, he says, he found himself at the crest of a hill, from which he could see everything connecting the pieces of his world and from which there was only down. Albee, in such plays as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance, has been one of our darkest poets of discontent, but one of the notions he’s toying with here is that perfect contentment can be a corrosive, too—that often, when we’ve got the world at our feet and nothing left to prove, something in some dim corner of our psyche demands that we ourselves bring it all crashing down.

But that’s hardly the playwright’s only point. One perceptive critic at a recent roundtable I was involved in pointed out that things get destroyed in this play—relationships, artifacts—as things get verbalized; the implication is that Albee’s making an oblique argument about how and why the explaining of art implies the unmaking of it. The muse, apparently, will betray you if you say too much about her.

Another astute observer remarked on the play’s second subtitle—“Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy”—and wondered how we’d respond to Stevie’s devastation if Martin were carrying on with another woman, or even with another man. Would we dismiss her, tell her to shrug it off, that these things happen? Why would her tragedy be smaller if it were merely a human one?

Still another pointed to the presence, yet again, of a gay son in an Albee play, highlighting a handful of passages suggesting that the business with the goat could be a metaphor for Martin’s attraction to his own child—whose name, if you can stand it, is Billy (Bradford William Anderson) and whose grief and confusion lead to an awkwardly moving eruption of feeling and a startling couple of truths late in the proceedings. Could be there’s something percolating here about our society’s still-unresolved discomfort with its queer children—the gay ones, specifically, but the other outcasts and misfits, too.

As for me, I think some of the most disturbingly moving moments in The Goat come tangled up in a paradox that Albee presents with a terrible charity: Martin recognizes the incomprehensibility, the reprehensibility even, of a physical and emotional attachment to a barnyard animal, but he doesn’t—can’t—bring himself to regret it. He can’t escape the desperate understanding that something’s very true in what he feels, and the mad bravery of his stance reinforces the idea that Albee’s insisting, with The Goat, that each of us acknowledge the possibility of something as unimaginable in our own lives. Not merely that we will encounter it, but that we will at some primal level be drawn to it. And that having felt that pull, having been startled and rocked by it, we will not ever recover the self we thought we knew.

And this is one place where Goldberg’s production, crisp and quicksilver as it often is, will prove a disappointment to the play’s passionate partisans. Her cast trips lightly enough through the early laughs, but once Foucheux’s nicely callow Ross has alerted Stevie to what’s happening down on the farm, Levy’s slow about letting the rage and hurt crack the thin armor of her cleverness. Schnetzer’s Martin never uncovers the abundant agonies waiting to be unearthed in his conflicting loves. And together the two of them never develop the chemistry, the body language, the ineffable onstage connection that could communicate how much Stevie wants to save Martin as she sets about the work of destroying him. Much has been made about the echoes of Medea that sound here and there in The Goat, but the escalating explanation-cum-confrontation that anchors the play’s middle third never develops into anything like the grief-tinged apocalypse it could be.

Other infelicities include the way Anne Kennedy’s too-confident costumes skew Levy’s already too-capable Stevie further away from the vulnerable creature in Albee’s script: Can this be the same woman who’s got a speech about shopping for shad roe and dress gloves? This woman, with her chunky jewelry and her trim pantsuits and her stiletto-heeled boots? No way she wears dress gloves, even ironically.

Patel’s set seems a little off, too. The script indicates a freestanding house, but what’s onstage at the Kreeger suggests a high-rise Manhattan apartment—which would make Stevie’s final act of vengeance all the more startling. (Wouldn’t want to share that elevator….) Their home hasn’t got a lick of architectural personality, either. Odd, that, for a guy who’s just won the profession’s highest prize.

Then there’s Foucheux’s odd interview technique; his Ross stalks his subject from behind a swooping, circling handheld, lobbing stentorian questions from off-camera. It keeps the scene moving, sure, especially with Schnetzer parked in that Eames chair, but Ross’s director is bound to look at that tape and wonder where the hell the two-shot is.

Arena’s dubious choices aren’t the only ones on display. Albee lets his playful word games shade into too-playful inside jokes that reference his own plays (there’s an awkward crack about a “large Alice,” dredging up his old discontent about the failure of Tiny Alice); there’s a shout-out to Arthur Kopit’s “pseudoclassical tragifarce” Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. (Granted, if there’s a better descriptor than “tragifarce” for what Albee’s done in the first two-thirds of The Goat, I’ve yet to discover the word. Still, it can be a trifle much.) And in building them up to bring them down, Albee’s made Martin and Stevie a little too perfect, a not-quite-believable pair of paragons in a marriage too ideal to be anything other than a playwright’s setup.

So if Arena’s isn’t a perfect production, Goldberg’s not working with a perfect play. But it is a very fine one—smart, fearless, and far more moving than you’d expect a four-footed love story could ever be.CP