In “The Kiss,” a beautiful short story by Anton Chekhov, a traveling military brigade spends the night in a provincial town at the home of a hospitable local squire. Getting lost between the billiard hall and the living room, a bespectacled, sloping-shouldered petty officer named Ryabovich wanders by accident into a darkened corner, where a woman rushes toward and kisses him — mistaking him for her lover in a secret tryst. Realizing her gaffe, she screams and runs away, but that kiss and its after-effect transform Ryabovich, filling him with swirling visions of romance and self-confidence. He replays the scene in his head over and over until, days later, in a tent, he confides it to his battalion. He imagined he could tell the story until dawn, but it takes just a minute, popping out like a plum pit being spat onto the ground, after which some womanizing officer tells a pornographic joke. Ryabovich vows never again to confide such a precious, intimate feeling, now demeaned by his crude expression of it. His resolve echoes a theme that runs throughout Chekhov: how telling a story defiles the experience upon which the story is based, what Janet Malcolm calls “the danger of dislodging what sits in one’s head from its place of safety.”
Above all else, this is what Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?(now at the Taper) is really about. A befuddled, loving husband and award-winning architect named Martin (Brian Kerwin) with a loving, loyal wife, Stevie (Cynthia Mace), confides to his best friend and TV host, Ross (James Eckhouse), that he’s been fucking a goat. This is not something Martin is particularly proud of, but Sylvia — the goat — means the world to him. “Guileless” is the billowy adjective Martin employs to describe the creature. Being more of a publicist than a friend, Ross sends a press release to Stevie, forcing Martin to explain, once again — this time to his wife — what he’s been doing on those secret trips to the country. As Martin tries to come clean in varying colors of agony and earnestness, their gay teenage son (Patrick J. Adams) clings to a razor’s edge of sanity (Dad, honestly, how couldyou?) while Stevie smashes the furniture, item by item.
The play is a sitcom with a sucker-punch ending, an Aristotelian comedy, what TV types like Ross would call a tragicomedy, and Albee has been laughing all the way to the bank since the play scooped up those Tonys in 2002. But it’s not a frivolous play, nor has it anything to do with bestiality, or sin, or betrayal — despite every character destroying somebody they love. I don’t believe for a moment that Albee gives two hoots about Martin’s morality, or anyone else’s. He’s far more entertained by their hypocrisy, which is largely why his play is so funny. Its structure is its theme — an extended confession, the transfer of experience into fiction — the awful ramifications of baring one’s soul.
“I don’t write autobiographical plays,” Albee told the Weeklyin 2002, in New York, when The Goatwas in previews on Broadway. He said then, “I write plays to find out why I’m writing them.” This is not a cryptic remark. It bolsters the idea that The Goatis really about the art of telling, and its dire costs.
We live in a confessional society — from reality TV to Oprah. Through the decades, our most famous playwrights have leaned increasingly toward the art of spilling guts, from Eugene O’Neill to Tennessee Williams to Sam Shepard and, in varying degrees, Eduardo Machado, August Wilson and Tony Kushner to — well, not to Edward Albee, who retains an unusual degree of personal privacy. Walter Kerr and Robert Brustein both used to complain that they could never decipher from his plays who Albee was. And that’s exactly what Albee’s wrestling with in The Goat.The central question is not why Martin did what he did, but the cost of his explaining it to some TV guy who hosts a show called People Who Matter.
On Broadway, Mercedes Ruehl played Stevie as though she never quite believed the awful saga until quite late. This gave her the freedom to float over the hideous prospect of whom she was indirectly sharing her bed with. Her retorts were entirely sarcastic, above the fray, as judgmental as society. Sometimes she would accidentally land on the truth, and it would fry her for a moment, like a bolt of lightning, until she shook herself loose of the curse and floated again at some glib altitude.
At the Taper, Cynthia Mace believes the horror from the get-go, no questions asked, which mutes both the situational comedy and the divide of public and private worlds. Hers is a more tormented performance, so the tragic resolution comes as less of a jolt, with more ancient Greek inevitability. It’s a glorious, darker performance that puts her somewhat at odds with director Warner Shook’s insistence that the humor in Albee’s one-liners ricochet off the walls. That’s not where her heart’s at, and the strain shows.
Kerwin is as openhearted and emotionally tortured as Bill Pullman was on Broadway. Then again, his only job is to tell all, slowly, landing blows like a prison guard with a heart.
Videotaped love lettersform the crux of Steven Banks and Penn Jillette’s Love Tapes,closing this weekend at Sacred Fools Theater — inner desires and confessions plunked onto a videocassette and mailed across the country. “I better not look at [the cassette] or I’ll never send it,” the confessors tell the camera operators (plucked from the audience). There’s no tragic dimension to the humiliation of baring all for the camera — which Melinda (Julie Mullen) does, literally, Hula-Hooping naked in an attempt to woo lead guitarist Kevin (Ralph Saenz) of the band Umlaut (which appears onstage). Compared to Albee’s play, this is ice-skating, but Love Tapesnonetheless seems to twirl amiably on the line dividing the public and the private sectors of the frozen lake. Melinda’s tape lands in the hands of Kevin’s PR man and general factotum, Carl (Dean Cameron), who becomes smitten with her image, mistaking it for the real her.
Feeling a bit like a stalker, Carl — a shaved-headed sheep in a rocker’s leather clothing — sends back a tape of his own explaining how Kevin just made fun of her, but that he, Kevin’s gofer, adores, better yet, understandsher. For a moment, there’s a Chekhovian dimension of unrequited love: Melinda’s in love with Kevin’s image, Carl’s in love with Melinda’s image. More tapes are exchanged — increasingly graphic — until a real-time meeting between Carl and Melinda is inevitable.
Melinda flies across the country to see Carl, who won’t even kiss her unless there’s a video camera recording the historic moment. Melinda wants an authentic experience; Carl wants the story of it, which, in Melinda’s view, defiles the real thing. And we’re right back to Chekhov’s “The Kiss.”
The play’s resolution is a cop-out, but the tension between what’s real and what’s recorded is a revelation. Under Jessie Marion’s direction, Mullen’s Melinda has the striking appeal of a simple mind and complicated soul, groping her way across lines of decorum, then trying to grope her way back. Cameron’s Carl is equally innocent — as earnest, in his own way, as Albee’s Martin, both of them conjuring Chekhov’s bewildered Ryabovich.
THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA? | By EDWARD ALBEE | At the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through March 20 | (213) 628-2772 or www.MarkTaperForum.org
LOVETAPES| By STEVEN BANKS and PENN JILLETTE | At the SACRED FOOLS THEATER, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood | Through February 26 | (310) 281-8337