|Photo by Craig Schwartz|
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 ones head from its place of safety.
Above all else, this is what Edward Albees 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 hes 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 hes 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 razors edge of sanity (Dad, honestly, how could you?) 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 its not a frivolous play, nor has it anything to do with bestiality, or sin, or betrayal despite every character destroying somebody they love. I dont believe for a moment that Albee gives two hoots about Martins morality, or anyone elses. Hes 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 ones soul.
I dont write autobiographical plays, Albee told the Weekly in 2002, in New York, when The Goat was in previews on Broadway. He said then, I write plays to find out why Im writing them. This is not a cryptic remark. It bolsters the idea that The Goat is 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 ONeill 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 thats exactly what Albees 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. Its a glorious, darker performance that puts her somewhat at odds with director Warner Shooks insistence that the humor in Albees one-liners ricochet off the walls. Thats not where her hearts 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 letters form the crux of Steven Banks and Penn Jillettes 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 Ill never send it, the confessors tell the camera operators (plucked from the audience). Theres 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 Albees play, this is ice-skating, but Love Tapes nonetheless seems to twirl amiably on the line dividing the public and the private sectors of the frozen lake. Melindas tape lands in the hands of Kevins 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 rockers leather clothing sends back a tape of his own explaining how Kevin just made fun of her, but that he, Kevins gofer, adores, better yet, understands her. For a moment, theres a Chekhovian dimension of unrequited love: Melindas in love with Kevins image, Carls in love with Melindas 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 wont even kiss her unless theres a video camera recording the historic moment. Melinda wants an authentic experience; Carl wants the story of it, which, in Melindas view, defiles the real thing. And were right back to Chekhovs The Kiss.
The plays resolution is a cop-out, but the tension between whats real and whats recorded is a revelation. Under Jessie Marions direction, Mullens 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. Camerons Carl is equally innocent as earnest, in his own way, as Albees Martin, both of them conjuring Chekhovs 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
LOVE TAPES | By STEVEN BANKS and PENN JILLETTE | At the SACRED FOOLS THEATER, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood | Through February 26 | (310) 281-8337
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