There are MacGuffins–and then there are MacGuffins. The term was coined by auteur director Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s to refer to a somewhat deceptive–but expedient–plot device in film, but quickly it was realized that its equivalents are easily found in fiction and on stage. Though a MacGuffin seems at first to be the central focus of a story, ultimately it stands revealed as a mechanism that’s been designed primarily to put a host of distinctive characters or issues into play. Frequently it becomes the title of the work in which it appears; Edgar Poe’s The Purloined Letter and John Huston’s film of The Maltese Falcon are two famous examples.

To that list we add a new entry: The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? Easily the most sensational element of Edward Albee’s deeply thought-provoking work (now on admirable display at Manbites Dog Theater) is named in its title: a certain barnyard animal that Martin, an aging, internationally renowned–and deeply perplexed–architect encounters by chance during his search for a home in the country. He falls head over heels for the creature, in what he claims to be a relationship where heartfelt emotions–and sexual attraction–are fully reciprocated.

So yes, at face value here it seems there is more than enough reason to inquire if Albee, a literary provocateur long obsessed with the underlying hypocrisies in societal and intimate relationships, actually has turned to openly endorse bestiality during the course of his eighth decade.

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?

Manbites Dog Theater
Through Nov. 18

The Shadow Box

Flying Machine Theatre
Common Ground Theatre
Through Nov. 18

For the record, the answer is no. However, given the unsettling conclusions Albee does reach about human–and not interspecial–liaisons in a play that must be counted among his most riveting works, many of us might well have preferred he’d merely done the former.

For it’s the reactions of those around Martin–his wife Stevie, son Billy and lifelong friend Ross–that confirm the playwright’s ultimate thesis. In The Goat Albee finds that love is ultimately incomparable–and that this incomparability actually qualifies it as the ultimate in dissociative states.

“It relates to nothing whatever, to nothing that can be related to,” Martin exclaims about his feelings for Sylvia, in a desperate attempt to convey what he’s experienced to his bewildered wife. “Why can’t I feel what I’m supposed to!? Because it relates to nothing?”

In at least two other crucial points, various characters admit to feelings that have “nothing to do” with anything else. Albee wants those moments to reveal that the main thing that has been destroyed in this world are the characters’ illusions about fidelity, continuity and their seamlessly shared identity.

In the rupture of their solipsistic family, Martin, Stevie and Billy not only realize that the assumptions they’ve had about their relationships have not been shared, they find they’re fundamentally incongruent. Ultimately, they realize the degree to which their love has made them utterly alone.

In the end, the only thing that’s left is judgment–and certain retribution.

It would provide some comfort if we could say at least they’re not acting like animals. But they are.

As Joshua Reaves’ subtle lighting graces Tracey Broome’s deliciously tasteful set, director Joseph Megel’s collaboration with actor Derrick Ivey has resulted in another landmark performance, this time in the role of Martin. From the first notes of charm–and fundamental distraction–Ivey portrays both the enchantment and bewilderment of a man swept off his feet by an impossible situation. As the common ground shatters beneath his feet, Ivey’s Martin appears to fold at times like human origami, twisted nearly in two both by the need–and the complete inability–to make anybody begin to understand what’s happened to him.

Elizabeth Lewis Corley is a match as his wife, Stevie, a woman of imposing intellect, wit and sudden ferocity–even if her rages are indeed too sudden at times to make the treacherous emotional crosswinds in her role entirely believable.

In Albee’s script, their son Billy doesn’t get an awful lot of stage time to fully realize his own character. Here young actor Gabriel Graetz seems too tentative during much of his brief scenes, while David Berberian doesn’t have to stretch much in the role of Martin’s boorish not-so-best friend, Ross.

I live for nights when actors first break through to previously unexplored terrain. It’s the night they find the courage to abandon stock characterizations, crutch mannerisms, sweet falsity and ingratiation.

It’s the night they finally graduate from “character actor” to “actor.”

The achievement is not usually realized without significant directorial assistance, which is why I’m particularly grateful to Marc Williams for his achievements at the helm of Flying Machine Theatre’s current production of The Shadow Box.

We feared Michael Cristofer’s 1977 Broadway play about three different families facing terminal illness might have grown dated or overly sentimental.

As it turns out, we needn’t have worried. Williams–and his actors–found the integrity in a disparate set of characters and situations. John Honeycutt was Mary Cates’ equal as they played a married couple in which the wife remained staunchly in denial about the severity of her husband’s illness. Mariette Booth faced the dilemma of Agnes, a faithful daughter left to care for a terminally complaining mother (Felicity, played by Linda O’Day Young) with a bone-deep integrity that marks her clear next step as an actor.

Jerome Johnson similarly distinguished himself as brilliant Brian, a man who lives in a world of ideas, while Marta King and Jeff Alguire duked it out as his former and present lovers, Beverly and Mark.

In all, seven strong actors who fully belonged on the same stage threaded narratives of courage, whimsy, heartbreak and love back and forth on the Common Ground stage. For a 30-year-old script, The Shadow Box still has much to say about dying–and therefore living–with integrity. Highly recommended.

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