Corrections or additions?
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
presence in the region recently, not only for productions of his large
repertoire of comic plays, but also for the world premiere of
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
staging at Off-Broadstreet Theater in Hopewell, directed by Bob Thick,
through December 12. This is the third Gurney outing for the
Off-Broadstreet, preceded by "Later Life" in 1996 and
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,
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
in the title role that he dedicated the play to her. If Gurney were
to see Marilyn Stoddard’s currently animated and beguiling
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
lives, Sylvia is soon dictating the family’s every move.
Gurney’s verbal gift for anthropomorphizing a mutt into woman is
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
— Nicole Plett
Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. $18.50 & $20. Fridays and Sunday,
to December 12.
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