A Woolf in Goat's Clothing

When Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was first produced in the early '60s, critic Robert Coleman declared it "a sick play for sick people." Prudish as he might sound, Coleman was dead on. Martha and George, the middle-aged vipers at the center of Albee's tour de force, are practically pickled in the poison of their vitriolic marriage. Of course all of us are hiding some sort of psychic sore, some private sickness, from the public eye. This might explain why the 40th anniversary revival of Albee's extraordinary Tony Award-winning play still punches with the power of an enormous fist aimed straight for the place that hurts most. Outlandish, lush and shocking as ever, Albee's gorgeous script is most definitely sick, but it is also one of the most ambitious and psychologically ornate plays in the American canon. And nobody knows this better than Alley Theatre artistic director Gregory Boyd -- his dizzying production has an almost barbaric splendor. As Martha and George verbally tear each other's hearts to shreds, Boyd makes us carefully clutch our own.

From the first volley of insults we know this couple is in trouble. George (James Black) and Martha (Judith Ivey) bang through the door at 2 a.m., drunk from a party at "Daddy's." Martha's father is the president of the small college where George works as a history professor. Despite his marital connection, George has not made much of himself. Disappointed by his underachievement, Martha takes every opportunity to remind him of his failures.

But what this couple does in private is nothing compared to what happens when they get an audience. Once the young, new-to-campus couple of Nick (Ty Mayberry) and Honey (Elizabeth Bunch) pops over for a nightcap, George and Martha's acid tongues begin to burn to the bone. George is none too thrilled to be entertaining at 2:30 in the morning, but he hunches his back against Martha's infantile needling (at one point she even sticks out her liquor-slicked tongue at him), seemingly giving in to her mighty will and the ghost of "Daddy." Of course, George has his own armory of cruelties, and it isn't long before we realize that a night of savage party games has just begun.

Albee's set-up is brilliant. No one would stay for Martha and George's assaults unless there was something to be gained, and young Nick radiates the sort of ambition that Martha wants from George. She cuddles up to the broad-chested biologist, reminding him that she's the powerful president's daughter. Intoxicated by her clout, he won't leave the soiree even when the waters turn deadly. Filled with the hubris of youth, he struts his stuff for Martha, only to become a pathetic target whom George ultimately deems a "houseboy." Even Honey, Nick's "mousy," "slim-hipped" wife, who spends a good deal of the night curled up on the cool tiles of the bathroom floor between bouts of vomiting her brandy into the toilet, survives the party with more dignity.

Nick stays for the bloody battle because he dreams of glory; the audience sits through the grotesque three-act war because its story is so gloriously well told. Albee's genius flaunts itself in every sinful turn of phrase, creeps around in the curious secret of Martha and George's child, and gains velocity as character after character falls under the crushing truth of what the playwright has to say about love and hypocrisy. But there is also genius in Boyd's direction. With his demonic flair for the baroque, Boyd helps his flawless cast capture both the flamboyant hysteria and the seething rage in Albee's writing. The result is a world made devastatingly real and deliciously theatrical all at once.

Leading the charge into hell is Ivey's raspy, bull-like Martha. Done up in an off-the-shoulder number (courtesy of expert costume designer Andrea Lauer), the floozy matron swills vodka and squalls about her petty problems, most of which are caused by the lump in the dark suit on the other side of the room. The corruption of Martha's soul vibrates in every gesture Ivey makes, from her spiteful leers toward Nick to the hobbled wailing that erupts once George has his hideous way with her.

Black utterly inhabits the burned-out soul of troll-like George, covering every ache with deadly irony. The actor masterfully captures the bomb that ticks inside George's hard veneer, the Machiavellian power the character will need to launch the third-act attack that will change the rules of war forever.

What is especially exciting in this production is the careful attention Boyd has taken with the roles of Nick and Honey. Mayberry's Nick oozes an oily, muscular greed, and we happily watch him get eaten alive by the much bigger shark in this sewer, Martha. Most surprising is Bunch's Honey. Clearly a force to be reckoned with, Bunch turns the thankless role into a fascinating character. She begins the party with middle-class mask painted on with care, but each glass of brandy peels off a layer of lies. By the end -- after eagerly galloping across the stage for more brandy, dancing alone like a fool and puking her guts out -- she stands on a chair screaming, "Violence! Violence!" Enraptured by the brutal spectacle, she swings her dainty white fists at the air and licks her lips. The image is unforgettable.

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.

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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Lee Williams