A Man and His Dog

Studio Connections' production of 'Sylvia' highlights both the play's strengths and its flaws

It goes without saying that relationships are complicated. The best relationships still have their defects, while the worst may have moments of redemption.

The production of A.R. Gurney's Sylvia now on stage at Studio Connections illustrates this complexity in both its story and its execution: The show is far from perfect, but there is much to be enjoyed.

That complex relationship begins with the play itself.

Gurney, author of The Dining Room and the Pulitzer Prize-finalist Love Letters (which Live Theatre Workshop is mounting this weekend; see Page 20), uses his writing to explore the lives of the upper-middle-class, putting them within a larger historical context and mining the emotional core beneath their daily lives.

Sylvia is the tale of one such man facing a midlife crisis. Living with his wife in New York City, Greg (Richard Shipman) is longing for something meaningful to connect with. His children are grown; his job is increasingly dissatisfying; and his wife, Kate (Lissa Staples), is too wrapped up in her own goals to understand him.

The solution is a woman—a beautiful, younger woman who loves him unconditionally. A woman named Sylvia, who fills Greg with renewed energy and joy.

The brilliance of this play is that Sylvia is actually a stray dog that Greg has rescued. Played by Teresa Vasquez, Sylvia speaks, walks on two legs and causes no end of contention in Greg's marriage—but she is most definitely a dog. Even her frizzy pigtails and flouncy dresses suggest puppy physiology and psychology.

This bit of theatrical genius helps us to understand Greg. He's definitely in a relationship with Sylvia—not a physical one, but it's still love. It also fuels much of the evening's comedy. Watching Vasquez's extraordinary performance, as she sniffs, prances, wriggles and shares her every doggy thought with the human characters, is an absolute delight.

But Gurney never really develops his story beyond the initial conceit. In the first scene, Greg loves the dog, and his wife hates it. Next, he really loves it, and she really hates it. Later, he loves it to the point of looking insane, and she hates it to the point of almost leaving him. When, in the end, they both have a change of heart, it seems entirely unmotivated.

Director Maria Alburtus and her cast make the most of the play's strengths, while also magnifying some of its shortcomings.

The production's greatest strength is its abundant humor. I've already mentioned Vasquez's standout performance. When Sylvia premiered in New York in 1995, the title role was played by Sarah Jessica Parker. It is difficult to imagine that she could have given any more of an appealing performance than this.

Additional comic fuel is provided by three minor characters. In the original New York production, they were all played by a single actor, but here, the roles have been split between Jacob Brown and Chad Collins.

Brown plays Tom, a fellow dog-owner at the park. From the pencil-thin legs sticking out of his skimpy running shorts to his bushy moustache and big sunglasses, Brown looks like a live-action cartoon. And whether he's doing calisthenics or delivering sage advice from absurd self-help books, his performance is a little masterpiece of comic acting and physicality.

Collins brings a manic energy to his roles as one of Kate's socialite friends, and as a marriage counselor of ambiguous gender. Collins has a compelling stage presence and a gift for comic reactions. However, while his performance is quite funny, its broad style stands out from the fabric of the show, rather than blending with it.

Shipman and Staples, as Greg and Kate, must carry the dramatic weight of the show, and since the drama is poorly developed, it's an uphill battle. But both are capable actors and have their moments to shine.

Staples is particularly engaging when she is interacting alone with Sylvia. There's an escalating battle of wills over Greg's affections, with Kate escalating her efforts to maintain control. On these occasions, Kate seems not just angry, but fierce. She's ready to fight for something rather than just nag. The final scene in the first act is particularly compelling, ending with Kate on all fours, facing off with Sylvia, animal to animal.

Shipman is a jovial actor with a good-guy demeanor, but what's most moving about his performance is how clearly he shows that he needs his relationship with Sylvia. Greg does not seem particularly articulate, and when he tries to explain his motives, he's unconvincing. But Shipman himself is convincing, in his expressions, his tone and in his actions. Greg needs someone to love him unconditionally.

As written, Greg and Kate are fairly static characters. This is a problem that director Alburtus has not quite overcome. Greg is written as dopey and obtuse, and Kate is brittle and irritable—and so they are. In order to lift the characters into three dimensions, Alburtus needed to help her actors explore the sides of their characters not explicit in the dialogue.

Where Alburtus shines, however, is in pacing and movement. There's never a dull moment, as her cast flows through and around the set, making full use of the stage. (The set—an uncluttered New York apartment and an exterior space to one side with a park bench—is one of the most professional-looking sets I've seen at Studio Connections, and it happens to have been designed by Vasquez, doing double-duty.)

Clearly, Alburtus has devoted much of her attention to fine-tuning Vasquez's performance, filling it with endless canine detail. And she has helped to shepherd the cast's chemistry, which is a real pleasure to watch.

The relationship between Sylvia and Greg is the beating heart of this show—and it's that heart that makes this production worth getting to know, flaws and all.

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