Man's Best Friend

A.R. Gurney and Live Theatre Workshop go to the dogs--in a good way--with 'Sylvia'

Happily married but miserably employed, Greg is a midlife crisis in the making when he meets someone new in the park: Sylvia. She's attractive and frisky and beguiling and adoring. Greg brings Sylvia home. Not surprisingly, his wife, Kate, wants her out immediately--especially after Sylvia sheds hair on the couch and pees on the floor.

Sylvia, you see, is a dog. A talking dog. And a cross-species threat to Greg and Kate's marriage.

A.R. Gurney's Sylvia, the play and the character, bounds across the stage of Live Theatre Workshop with a slobbery joy that Gurney and director Jeremy Thompson only occasionally try to bring to heel. It's a fun show, and if not quite as philosophically profound as Gurney seems to intend, it is much more than the story of a man and his dog.

Greg's career has become a strain and a disappointment to him; meanwhile, now that the kids have grown up and left home, Kate is on the rise as a crusading English teacher to inner-city junior high kids. Although Kate is not inattentive or unsympathetic, Greg feels disconnected, and can't help being seduced by Sylvia, a stray mixed-breed who bounds up to him in the park.

As anyone who has lived with intelligent large dogs should anticipate, Sylvia is pretty complicated herself: abandoned and insecure but exuberant, innocent, sexy and absolutely amoral. Wait a minute--this is no dog; it's Sally Bowles.

Life is certainly a cabaret for Greg once he takes up with Sylvia; they go for long walks late at night, and Greg skips work to spend afternoons with her. Sylvia loves him unconditionally, and tells him so frequently, especially when she senses a threat to her security coming from the general direction of Kate.

Sylvia's ability to talk doesn't surprise Greg or Kate at all, for in many ways, she is talking for them. Oh, sure, often Sylvia behaves like an ordinary dog, jumping on forbidden furniture, rubbing her anal glands across the carpet and sniffing poop on the sidewalk ("I have to check my messages!"). Often, though, she verbalizes the fears and concerns Greg and Kate can't otherwise voice. This is not merely a love triangle; Sylvia is a buffer between Greg and Kate, and ultimately a vehicle for their thoughts as well as her own.

We like to imagine that our dogs understand us, yet Sylvia has no interest in being drawn into an abstract conversation. (She yawns when Greg waxes philosophical.) This is an important part of her canine credibility, which Gurney and the LTW gang are careful to maintain. When Sylvia sees a cat, for instance, she strains at her leash, hurls at it such epithets as "cocksucker" and "sack of shit," and threatens to kill it--exactly how you'd expect a talking dog to react to the neighborhood kitty.

Thankfully, the actress portraying Sylvia is not required to don a doggie suit. In this production, when she's in heat, Sylvia dresses in a provocative little red dress; when she returns from grooming, she's in a ridiculous quasi-ballet getup to suggest that she's been trimmed in the style of a French poodle (and she does a hilarious Edith Piaf impersonation). Most of the time, she knocks around in comfortable jeans, which is surely how dogs would dress if they were no longer allowed to go naked.

Sylvia is a perfect vehicle for Holli Henderson's dynamic personality. The irrepressible Suzi List played the role at Invisible Theatre in 1998, and Henderson takes to it just as easily, if not more so. The way her eyes widen and she wags her butt with happiness, the way she shakes a foot involuntarily when you rub her back--surely this is not a stretch for Henderson.

She's also steady and highly effective in the play's more poignant moments, notably when the three characters sing "Every Time We Say Goodbye" at the end of Act 1, and in Sylvia's final (separate) scenes with Greg and Kate. It's easy to see how Greg could fall in love with her, and how Kate could find her so annoying, and threatening.

Howard Allen's Greg is an ordinary, unhappy guy turning into a borderline shlemiel. Greg may believe Sylvia is saving him, but Allen makes it clear that she's making him increasingly pathetic. Still, Allen refuses to let Greg become totally ridiculous; this kind of dog folly could happen to many of us.

Kristi Loera recognizes that her character, Kate, is not simply a cold, jealous nag. She speaks passionately about her professional work, and she has good reasons for not wanting the complication of a dog at this point in her life, and for resenting Sylvia's claims on Greg's attention. Whether by accident or design, the tight, ultraprofessonal hairdo with which Loera begins the evening becomes increasingly loose and frayed along with Kate's patience; however accidental this may be, it illustrates how carefully Loera has thought through her character.

If Kevin Lucero Less has problems with the other roles, it's through no fault of his own; he's proven many times to be a fine actor. But Gurney has written these three secondary parts much more broadly than any of the others (including Sylvia), and Lucero Less seems trapped in a more farcical play--especially since he has to create strong contrasts between his macho guy, his fem society lady and his androgyne. This last bit of clumsy social-construction theorizing is the only portion of Gurney's dog play that comes back and bites the author on his ass.

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