REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
What would it be like if dogs could speak? That’s one question that is answered in A. R. Gurney’s 1995 play Sylvia, which deals with much more than just a man and his dog. Sylvia is currently playing through Sunday, May 7 at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura.
The play, whose script was updated by director Stephanie Coltrin to reflect advancing technology and cultural changes in the ensuing decades since its premiere, is a perverse variation on a theme. Greg (Kevin Symons) is an overworked, disillusioned Manhattanite going through a mid-life crisis who brings home a stray dog that he finds in Central Park. His wife Kate (Stasha Surdyke) is coping with empty nest syndrome by taking on a new career, teaching Shakespeare to inner-city junior high school students. Greg and Kate have downsized since their children left home, moving from the suburbs to a fashionable but small apartment in the city. Although Kate doubts the practicality of having a dog in the house, she acquiesces to Greg’s pleas, under the condition that he cares for the dog by himself. Greg, who is stuck in an uninteresting corporate job, gets a “new leash on life” with Sylvia, and begins to distance himself from the world of capitalistic ladder-climbing.
The twist in the show is that the dog, a shaggy mutt named Sylvia, is played by a sexy, shapely blonde (Sarah Jessica Parker originated the role on Broadway), who acts out the part of the dog and carries on conversations with her new owners. The play requires the audience to assume a suspension of disbelief from the opening scene, but Sylvia still behaves pretty much as a dog would normally behave, jumping on the couch, dashing to greet whoever comes to the front door, and angrily attacking any felines that cross its point of vision.
But there is something more sinister about the play, which is, on the surface, a lighthearted comedy with a gimmicky casting device. At first, the novelty of an attractive girl (Ashley Fox Linton) romping around in a woolly sweater with matching leg cuffs and knee pads is cute, but when Greg’s fondness for the dog starts to threaten his relationship with Kate, the atmosphere grows dark, and not just because Greg and Kate’s marriage is falling apart. What we begin to feel is an uneasiness about Greg’s obsessive behavior towards Sylvia, which makes us wonder if his affection for the dog is bordering on bestiality. When Greg takes Sylvia to the park, he encounters Tom, another dog owner, who warns Greg that having a dog with a woman’s name could lead to trouble.
Tom is one of three characters played by Larry Cedar. The other two he plays in drag: Phyllis, a severely dressed, snooty socialite friend of Kate’s, and Leslie, an androgynous, German-accented marriage counselor. Cedar is a well-traveled actor in television, film, and on stage who is ideally suited for his three vastly different characters. Lanky, with a Ray Bolger countenance, Cedar plays his parts totally straight, as anyone in the Monty Python troupe might have done, which makes us wonder why Gurney insisted on using a male actor to portray the two female characters. At the point in the play where Phyllis is introduced, we have gotten used to the idea of seeing a dog played by a girl, so what he possibly was doing was doubling down on our suspension of disbelief by adding gender ambiguity to the mix.
As good as Cedar, Symons, and Surdyke are in their roles, our eyes are drawn to Linton every moment she is on stage. For those old enough to remember, Linton reminds one of ditzy actress Sue Ane Langdon, who, in dozens of television sitcoms and films in the 1960s, played sexy characters who did not realize they were sexy. Linton is skilled enough to sublimate her femininity and stick to playing a dog, “chewing the scenery” in the most literal sense, but we can’t help but notice how adorable she is in doing so. She barks (“hey, hey, hey, hey!”), cuddles up with Greg, strains at her leash (which she holds in her hand), and crawls around on all fours, while we watch Symons carefully to make sure he is treating her like a dog and not the cute blonde that she is. (In a talkback session after Wednesday’s show, Linton revealed that she studied her own dog’s mannerisms for clues on how to play Sylvia).
Symons is as disciplined as Litton in making sure his character is well defined. It’s when we see that Greg prefers Sylvia’s company to that of his wife that we start to fidget and feel that something might be terribly wrong with him. A nice moment in the play comes when Sylvia begins to sing Cole Porter’s torch song “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” which is then echoed by Greg and then Kate, each rendition eliciting different feelings: simple loyalty from Sylvia, worrisome ambiguity from Greg, and painful jealousy from Kate.
Things come to a head when Kate deliberately applies for a grant to teach in England, knowing that Greg would have to give up Sylvia in order to go with her (In 1995 Britain, laws regarding animals entering the country were much more stringent.) By this time, we are in doubt as to what this play is really about. Is it what is on the surface, an innocent comedy in which Sylvia provides Greg with the companionship and undying loyalty that Kate cannot give him? Or is it more perverted, a black comedy about a relationship between man and man’s best friend that goes a little too far? We get a hint from Tom, who tells Greg “You’re sick, man,” when he notices Greg is jealous after Tom’s dog Bowser and Sylvia engage in some animalistic humping in the park. When Greg balks at going to England, Kate sees Leslie, the marriage counselor, who cautiously asks in her German-inflected accent, “How shall I put zis? Is zere any-zing feezical between zem?” As Kate later quotes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.”
The resolution of the play is unsatisfying because we have seen Kate’s resenting of Greg’s attention to Sylvia grow venomous (“I never thought I could hate anybody besides Chris Christie,” she fumes.) so her complete turnaround and acceptance of Sylvia at the end is somewhat of a cop-out. Still, all four actors deliver superb performances in this often riotous, but reservedly disturbing dark comedy.
Sylvia utilizes the Rubicon’s first-ever revolving set to alternate between Greg and Kate’s apartment and a leafy Central Park and also features Mike Billings’ effective set/lighting/projection design and Michael Mullen’s costuming, noteworthy for his especially whimsical dressing of Linton.
Sylvia plays through Sunday, May 7 at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.