Corrections or additions?

Review: `Sylvia’

This review by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

November 25, 1998. All rights reserved.

Playwright A. R. "Pete" Gurney has been a

familiar

presence in the region recently, not only for productions of his large

repertoire of comic plays, but also for the world premiere of

"Darlene

and the Guest Lecturer," developed by the playwright in residence

at George Street Playhouse, which ended its run there last week.

Now a recent Gurney favorite, "Sylvia," is receiving a

spirited

staging at Off-Broadstreet Theater in Hopewell, directed by Bob Thick,

through December 12. This is the third Gurney outing for the

non-Equity

Off-Broadstreet, preceded by "Later Life" in 1996 and

"Love

Letters" in 1997. Gurney’s funny, inventive script milks a whole

host of ideas about ourselves and our animal companions, yet with

enough restraint to avoid becoming trite.

Originally produced by the Manhattan Theater Club in 1995,

"Sylvia"

so pleased its New York audiences that it ran there for a year. The

playwright, in turn, was so pleased with Sarah Jessica Parker’s

performance

in the title role that he dedicated the play to her. If Gurney were

to see Marilyn Stoddard’s currently animated and beguiling

Off-Broadstreet

performance as the stray pup who came to stay, he would surely admit

that it, too, is a gem.

Part lab, part poodle (we’re told), and brimming with "hybrid

vigor," Sylvia enters the lives of Manhattanites Greg and Kate

at a time of transition: with two children away at college, the couple

are entering their independent adult years. Kate, held back from her

professional interests until now by family responsibilities, is keen

to move forward. Greg, on the other hand, is becoming burned out by

the world of work, and balking at his firm’s latest demand that he

switch from commodities ("at least they’re real") to currency

trading. Leaving the office early one afternoon, Greg wanders into

the park and manages to pick up the stray dog — or perhaps she

picks him up. Either way, like most animal presences in our

middle-class

lives, Sylvia is soon dictating the family’s every move.

Gurney’s verbal gift for anthropomorphizing a mutt into woman is

irresistible.

And Bob Thick’s direction of Stoddard as the embodiment of the spirit

of a dog is equally inspired.

On her arrival at the couple’s urban apartment (they’ve already fled

their home in the suburbs), Sylvia is excited and keyed up. With her

leggy carriage and mobile features, Stoddard carries herself like

an Afghan hound as she enthusiastically yet cautiously explores the

premises — including, of course, that proverbial battle-zone,

the couch. Arriving clad in cloth cap and ripped jeans, Sylvia’s a

street-wise Dickensian urchin. And over the course of the play, her

relationship to the love-struck Greg is characterized by the her

succession

of doggy "looks" — from frou-frou pink shorts and hair

ribbons to dramatic black velour and pearls.

As we learn early on when Sylvia runs toward the window with an

escalating

"Hey, hey… hey," Gurney has a transliteration for every

canine characteristic. When this over-excited stray fouls the rug,

she lifts her chin and turns her head, refusing to grace Greg’s urgent

inquiries with a reply.

Yes, Sylvia is smart — for a dog. But she’s limited

as a dialogue companion for Greg’s heart-to-heart talks. She’s been

around the block a few times, and knows her rights. We learn that

"out" is one of her favorite words. Yet just when we think

she’s ernestly following Greg’s train of thought, she gets distracted

by a particularly alluring Dalmation. Or else he throws in a few

problematic

nouns like "mastodon" and "wilderbeest" and loses

her completely. Their conversation is doomed when Sylvia is distracted

yet again by a creature of the feline persuation and her whole being

erupts into a passionate and dirty shouting match with a cat.

Though somewhat young in appearance for the mid-life identity crisis

that is Sylvia ("All you are is a male menopausal moment,"

his jealous wife informs the mutt), Gary Van Lieu is an earnest and

endearing Greg. We can’t help but empathize with his desire for an

adoring companion. As he learns from the philosophical Tom, another

dog-owning denizen of the city park, a dog may be a step up in life

— or else "something to hang on to on the way down." But

we can see that his late-night walks and talks with Sylvia are a vital

part of this time of transition.

Catherine Rowe, as Greg’s wife Kate, is a mid-life mother balancing

at least as many professional and quality-of-life problems as her

spouse, but not ones that evoke as much sympathy. Starting late on

her career path, she is finishing an advanced degree and working flat

out to bring Shakespeare into the inner-city, junior high school

curriculum.

Her prosletyzing mission both gives Gurney the chance to air some

nice ideas about youth and language, and enables Kate to deliver a

pithy coda to each scene in the form of a quotation from the immortal

bard.

While Sylvia seems bound to help Greg "get back in touch with

nature," she clearly brings out the beast in Kate. The mother

who yearns for the freedom to work believes she has also earned

"freedom

from dogs." The conflict crests when Kate wins a fellowship to

study in England, that dog-loving isle that forces "foreign"

dogs to languish in six months’ quarantine.

Rounding out the cast — and bringing a professional dazzle to

the entire proceedings — is Mark Warren Moede in three supporting

roles that soar across comic and gender boundaries. As Kate’s friend

Phyllis, Moede gets some of the play’s funniest lines, dismissing

Greg’s paean to the "democratic experience" of his long walks

with Sylvia, with the observation, "I think all men should be

Republicans. It seems to be good for their prostate."

Stoddard’s Sylvia, of course, steals the show. This mild-mannered

creature with a powerful sense of self-preservation quickly succeeds

in chewing "a huge hole in a 20-year marriage." Wise within

the limits of her doggy existence, Sylvia defines the true nature

of her unconditional love for Greg when she says, "Even when you

act like a complete jerk, I still love you completely." And during

the crisis of her relocation to a "loving family" in

Westchester

County, she pulls out all the stops, replaying the melodrama of the

jilted lover in B-movies as in life, with the plea, "Please don’t

send me away. I’ll change."

Gurney’s (and Sylvia’s) triumph, however, comes at this moment of

climax when the dumb dog unexpectedly and eloquently invokes Homer.

In so doing, Sylvia effortlessly trumps those Shakespearean words

of wisdom.

— Nicole Plett

Sylvia, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood

Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. $18.50 & $20. Fridays and Sunday,

to December 12.


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