A Woolf in Goat's Clothing

Edward Albee tears up the Alley Theatre with his two Tony Award-winning plays

Sick as Albee's vision might be, there is something wholesome in the unflinching way he records what he sees. In 1962, Albee let us know that the serpents of our discontent lie coiled underneath our picture-perfect lives, waiting for the right conditions to strike. In 2003, that knowledge is as disturbing as ever.

The Goat or Who is Sylvia? won Albee another Tony in 2002. More than one critic has found oblique references to Virginia Woolf. The odd similarity of names notwithstanding, both plays take us into the landscape of love, a dangerous place to be when Albee's involved. To him, desire is a strange and skin-prickling thing likely to cast you weeping to your knees.

Judith Ivey, Ty Mayberry, James Black and Elizabeth Bunch (left to right) constitute the flawless cast of Virginia Woolf.
Jim Caldwell
Judith Ivey, Ty Mayberry, James Black and Elizabeth Bunch (left to right) constitute the flawless cast of Virginia Woolf.


Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Through February 8 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. $20-$50.

The Goat or Who is Sylvia?
Through February 16 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave., 713-228-9341. $40-$45.

Directed by Pam MacKinnon, The Goat feels like a new take on the subject. Lean and quick (90 minutes without intermission), the play centers on the post-modern couple of Stevie (Elizabeth Heflin) and Martin (Todd Waite). Beautiful, successful and remarkable in their seemingly straightforward, grown-up love for one another, they practically glow with clean, up-town, better-than-Martha-Stewart living. Their living room (provided by set designer Tony Straiges) is expansive and sleek, furnished with carefully positioned black leather furniture, low light-wood tables and primitive art -- whose symbolic meaning will come into ironic focus soon enough.

On his 50th birthday Martin should be delirious. The architect has just won the coveted Pritzker Prize and is slotted to design a "billion-dollar dream city." But he's spending the day in a veil of frustration, unable to remember names or who gave him the business cards in his pocket. One of the most powerful aspects of Albee's work is his ability to weave dramatic mystery into the phantasmagoria of his language. Something's clearly wrong with Martin -- we just can't quite put our finger on it.

That there's more trouble here than anyone, including Stevie, could ever imagine is attributable to Albee's sheer audacity. Martin, it turns out, is in love with Sylvia, a goat -- of the four-legged, farm-living variety. We discover this peculiar news during a conversation between Martin and his best friend Ross (played with rarified mean spirit by James Belcher). Giving this bit of mystery away doesn't really spoil the story, as the play's true climax is a showdown between Stevie and Martin that gets to the heart of what love really means.

In one of her strongest performances, Heflin explodes into the rage of a fiercely intelligent woman scorned. Her attacks are punctuated with a brutal cheekiness, and she makes the confoundingly intellectual argument that the situation is "too serious" for her to be serious. But moments later, she's reduced to a series of primal wails.

Waite's slightly offish Martin is a puzzle. More archetype than fully-wrought character, he stands for all men who've fallen into unconventional, destructive love. His situation is odd, even pathetic, but never emotionally engaging. As played by Waite, Martin remains an interesting cipher, capable of some wicked wordplay but not of making us feel.

Albee's presence is palpable throughout -- from the endlessly engaging language to a particularly evocative scene between Martin and his gay son Billy (Matt Hune). The overall conceit is so brazen that only a writer of Albee's confidence and ability could forge these bizarre elements into a play, much less a Tony Award.

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