Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2004
“If dogs could talk it would take a lot of the fun out of owning one.”
– Andy Rooney
Have you ever owned a dog? If so, you must go see Sylvia, playwright A.R. Gurney’s homage to his own beloved pet. It is a poignant and very funny love letter concerning the unique relationship that obtains between the human and canine species. There is also some plot about human relationships, but that is far more predictable and less interesting than the one depicted between a man and his dog.
The title character Sylvia is a dog, but she is played by a human, in this case Eleanore E. Gutwein. A man named Greg (Patrick Waggoner) finds her in the park and they immediately fall in love. He brings Sylvia home to his less than enthusiastic wife of 22 years, Kate (Alexandra Cremer). Greg is in mid-life crisis and unhappy in his work. Kate is enjoying their newly empty nest and is focused on developing her own career as an educator. The play follows how the delicate balance of Greg and Kate’s lives and marriage is thrown out of kilter by the addition of Sylvia, whose main interests in life are eating, getting up on the couch, and pleasing Greg. Three other characters appear – one male, one female, and one whose gender remains a mystery – all played by Stephen J. Bolte.
The title role is a showstopper, brilliantly written by one of America’s foremost living playwrights. Gurney is obviously channeling his own dog. Do not expect to see a shaggy costume and an actor on all-fours. Gutwein is never in disguise. She is called upon to act like a dog, and she does it very well. It is a sweet moment at the very end when a photograph of the “real” Sylvia is projected on to the rear wall of the stage while Gutwein stands silently below. Yup, that’s her alright, same nose, same mop of curly hair. That’s Sylvia. We knew it all along.
Waggoner is relentlessly cheerful as the utterly devoted Greg. Unable to acknowledge the slow disintegration of his marriage and career his lives only for Sylvia, who is more than happy to return the favor. Cremer handles the far less sympathetic role of Kate with grace. Kate is written as the bad guy, and therefore she doesn’t get much sympathy from the audience until the bitter end.
Bolte is a fine sketch comic, and it is fun to see him in three hilarious roles here. His final turn as a highly neurotic therapist named Leslie who prefers to allow the patient to select his/her gender is howlingly funny, although I am not at all sure what it really had to do with the rest of the play. When Leslie asks Greg “Am I a man or a woman?” I suddenly realized that, although I knew Bolte was male, that he had given no real clues at all as to his character’s gender. Gurney and Bolte never reveal Leslie’s secret.
Kasey RT Graham, usually the musical director at the Theater Barn, has done the stage direction for this show, and undoubtedly chosen the evocative background and entre-acte music. There are a few lines that get thrown away, and few moments that are played a tad too broadly, but overall this is a delightful production of a winning little comedy.
Abe Phelps has designed and painted an interesting abstract grey and white cityscape, crowned by projected quotations and images, as a back drop. And Jane Roy-Bachman has designed some delightful costumes – the ladies, the real one, the canine one, and the one in drag, look particularly lovely. But the set is badly dressed with furniture even a thrift shop would have a hard time selling – hardly how an upper-middle class Manhattan couple would choose to decorate – and scene changes are established by miniscule movement of bits of furniture performed by stagehands during blackouts. The play could have moved a long faster if the actors had picked up and moved their own chairs and benches into place as the entered or exited.
This play spoke to me because I too have a girl-dog (yes, I know that phrase is an oxymoron and that there is a perfectly good English word for a female canine, but it is so abused these days that I chose not to use it in this, its correct context.) My dog’s name is Asia, she’s half Dalmatian and half Border Collie, and I am her third owner. She is as hopelessly devoted to me as Sylvia is to Greg. She is lying beside me now as I type, rising occasionally to knock my right wrist into the air with her cold wet nose and demand a little face-time (I pat her face, she licks mine.) Since everyone else in our household is male (except for the cat, who Asia would rather eat than acknowledge) she and I have our own girl-thing going. She understands me in ways that no man can, and vice versa. Like Gurney, I could easily write Asia’s dialogue for her.
The other week I had a nasty post-operative infection and ran a high fever for a few days. I could hear Asia right outside my bedroom door the whole time I was ill, leaving her post only to bark loudly at anyone who came to the house (we have a doormat that reads “Do not ask for whom the dog barks, it barks for thee.”) When I felt better and emerged into the living room, Asia came and wrapped her body around me and leaned heavily against me in her own, armless version of a big hug. I had nursed her through a collision with a pick-up truck and a bout with cancer, and now she was returning the favor. Asia and I will always be there for each other, ‘til death do us part.
That is the relationship Gurney celebrates so movingly in “Sylvia.” If there is a Sylvia, an Asia, or even a Bowser in your life, you will love this play.
Sylvia runs through September 19 at The Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs two hours and contains some adult language, but hardly more that you hear on TV these days. Unless that is offensive to you, I would say kids over eight will love this show, especially those with dogs in their lives. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004