|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
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 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 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 Weekly in 2002,
in New York, when The Goat was 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 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 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 letters form 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 Tapes nonetheless 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, understands her. 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
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
LOVE TAPES | By STEVEN BANKS and PENN JILLETTE | At the SACRED FOOLS
THEATER, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood | Through February 26 | (310) 281-8337