If you're looking for an evening of light-hearted entertainment, don't choose The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, Edward Albee's Tony Award-winning play getting its regional premiere by New Stage Collective (NSC) — which happens to be debuting its new theater space at 1140 Main St. in Over-the-Rhine with this production. On the other hand, if you want to see a superbly acted, searing drama that will remain with you for weeks and months, you should call for tickets right away.
There's nothing easy about Albee's play: Martin (Brian Isaac Phillips), a successful architect, happily married for 22 years, finds his world spinning out of control when he's forced to confess to his wife, Stevie (Amy Warner), about an extramarital affair. It's well beyond a tawdry sneak-around with a tramp. In fact, it's with — as the title of the play trumpets in advance — a goat.
What sounds silly and perhaps implausible in fact provokes a goodly amount of snickers and giggles in the first scene of this 100-minute performance. But it quickly turns into a dark tragedy when a family is torn asunder and relationships are destroyed beyond reconstruction. (Even in its final horrifying moments, The Goat evokes squeamish laughter from some in the audience.)
Taking on this challenging script demonstrates the fearlessness of director Alan Patrick Kenny, the force behind NSC. For the five-year-old group's inaugural production in its first permanent home, he has transformed the exposed brick walls and newly refinished floors into a space that convincingly becomes Martin and Stevie's upscale, contemporary home — perhaps an urban loft, with windows overlooking an urban neighborhood.
Kenny sought strong actors for the play's four roles and found them. Warner, who plays Stevie with steely hysteria (tempests of furious anger keep washing over her grief, which escapes in three long wails at one point), has worked at the Playhouse, Ensemble Theatre and Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (where she earned a CEA for playing Martha in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).
Phillips, a good deal younger than Warner and CSC's artistic director (he staged Virginia Woolf, in fact), convincingly portrays a man adrift in middle age; he doesn't quite look 50, a birthday Martin has just marked, but playing against Warner's energy, Phillips and she are a convincing pair whose past we accept and whose devastating present seems truly tragic.
Charlie Clark plays Martin's friend Ross; Chris Conner is Billy, Stevie and Martin's gay teenage son. Clark, too, is young for his role, but he and Phillips establish a bantering chemistry that reflects a one-time friendship and then a separation all the more painful because they were once close. Conner plays Billy with too much stereotype, keeping predictable emotions and poses on the surface, but his fear regarding his parents' disintegration is frequently palpable.
Albee's play requires actors who can perform this daunting material with abandon. The agonizing argument of revelation between Martin and Stevie — she insists he tell her how he could have become enamored with a barn animal, then berates him for his honesty, while he fails to understand her irrational dismay — is one of the most horrendous and convincing I have ever seen onstage. It certainly dismissed any initial concern that these actors might not connect in a way that would powerfully drive home this show's terrifying and discomforting message.
And what is the message? Perhaps it's that we're all desperately alone and disconnected. Perhaps it's that we must be careful how we do connect with one another, because human relationships are so fragile. But most certainly it's that when people lose track of one another in their own self-delusion, it's damn near impossible to make things right again.
It's a pessimistic — in fact, a downright tragic — perspective. But it rings true, especially in this electrifying production.
Bravo to New Stage, to Kenny and his cast. This is an auspicious debut with promise of more to come. Grade: A
THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA?, presented by New Stage Collective, continues through May 20.