Rachel Dratch is a dog. Hardly. But, in A.R. Gurney’s whimsical and winning comedy the former Saturday Night Live star plays Sylvia, an abandoned mongrel. She is also a cunning, cute, coquettish little flirt with a mad crush on the man who has just picked her up in the park.
It is easy to see why “Sylvia” has been a staple of regional and community theaters since its premiere in 1995. It is not only a delightful fantasy, but also a psychologically persuasive look at one man’s mid-life crisis. Sylvia’s savior, and the man to whom she says “I think you’re God,” is Greg, as played with ingratiating susceptibility by Boyd Gaines. Greg is a middle-aged New Yorker who is apparently ripe for the attentions of an adoring, straggly-haired brunette who snuggles, sniffs, and smooches with unstoppable vigor.
The easily seduced Greg brings Sylvia home to his New York apartment. Their romance is thwarted, or at least stunted, by his wife, Kate. As played with a sustained display of apathy by Kathleen McNenny, Kate has an agenda that doesn’t include Sylvia. Although she is attractive and intelligent, she is unwilling to compromise their carefully plotted now-that-the-children-are-gone middle years for a stray dog. . . that she calls Saliva.
Hardly a menage-a-trois in the conventional sense, Gurney invests this unconventional love story with plenty of humorous dog-eared incidents and dialogue. Necessarily intrusive but laugh-getting is the triple role-playing by Stephen DeRosa. David Saint has directed this heart-tugging lark with a controlling leash.
Though Dratch is better known for improvisation and stand-up comedy (seven years on “Saturday Night Live”) than as a legitimate actor, she has no difficulty being persuasive in this very physically demanding role. While one could conceivably grow tired of the obligatory amount of panting and the scratching of fleas, she delightfully catches us unawares as she checks out a fire hydrant to see “if I have any messages.” Dratch is most irresistibly funny when she spots a cat in the park, and goes into a wild frenzy and an unstoppable tirade laced with expletives that I choose not to repeat. Never overdoing the obvious, she has a comical way of bulging her eyes whenever she gets the upper hand or paw, as it were. She gets plenty of opportunities for scene-stealing but none more than when Greg has her professionally groomed. Her shoulders draped with a black feather boa and with her hair and ankles adorned with pink bows. Sylvia instinctively feels the French side of her gene pool surface, accent and all.
It has been obvious for a long time that the Tony Award-winning Gaines (“Gypsy,” “Pygmalion,” “Journey’s End”) is an exceptionally versatile actor (and singer when need be). But he shows us a quietly poignant Greg blinded by his unprecedented love for Sylvia. Because the role of Kate is not a sympathetic one, it is to McNenny’s credit that she makes us feel Kate’s desperation and her decision to fight for the man she loves.
What talented actor doesn’t relish the opportunity to play multiple characters in the same play? These are not cameos that DeRosa plays, but three significant characters marked by their outrageously idiosyncratic behavior. DeRosa has a field day as the obnoxious Mr. Macho Tom, whose male dog (unseen) has a fling with the hilariously enthusiastic Sylvia. He tops that as Kate’s Vassar college friend Phyllis, a hoity-toity upper East-sider whose crotch appears to be of particular interest to Sylvia. Lastly he plays to the hilt Leslie, a vaguely Asian marriage counselor of indeterminate sex with a black-lacquered preposterously styled coiffure.
Perhaps the sweetest moment in the play finds Greg, Sylvia, and Kate expressing their individualized loneliness singing alone and in concert Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” Set designer James Youmans’s visually impressive ever changing cityscape serves as an evocative backdrop for Kate and Greg’s apartment and other New York City locales. Costume designer David Murin deserves credit especially for Sylvia’s floppy, oversized attire. All in all, “Sylvia” is comedy that delivers (p)oodles of laughs and some kibbles for your thoughts.
“Sylvia,” through Sunday, April 25, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $29.50 to $71.50. 732-246-7717.