Last week I saw Camarillo Skyway Playhouse’s production of Sylvia and afterward, I had a long talk with my two dogs. Although they listened intently, I couldn’t be sure whether they understood anything I said. Maybe they do understand but are unable to communicate this to us. We know that cats not only don’t understand us but don’t even care, but the mystery about the relationship between people and their dogs is always a curious one. A. R. Gurney’s play Sylvia is a warm-hearted fantasy that answers the question: what would it be like if we really could communicate with our pets? In Sylvia, Greg and Kate are upscale Manhattanites going through a midlife crisis as well as empty nest syndrome. When Greg brings home a dog that he found in Central Park, he immediately falls in love. His growing attention to the dog eventually threatens his marriage and by the end of the play, he has to make a decision on who to keep, the dog or his wife.
First-time director Kimberly Demmary is familiar with Gurney’s play, having portrayed Sylvia the rescue dog before, in a 2010 performance at the Ojai Art Center that won her a Four Star Alliance award. For the CSP production, Demmary cast Genevieve Levin, who turns in an endearing, hilarious performance as Sylvia. Levin’s Sylvia is two-dimensional, as it should be. Dogs have no depth of character and live in the moment and Levin understands this thoroughly. Sylvia doesn’t bark, she converses in English (even her barks are just exclamatory: “Hey! Hey! Hey!) and vacillates between what she wants and expressing affection for Greg. Levin has developed an adorable way of “wagging her tail” that attracts chuckles from the audience whenever she does it as well as loud laughter when she launches into her periodic profane tirades against cats, Sylvia’s hated enemies. (The first time she does this, her performance was so outrageously unbridled and fierce that she got a thundering ovation from the cat haters in the audience.) Levin also has a beautiful singing voice and gets to showcase it when Sylvia, pining for her absent masters in their apartment, croons “Every Time We Say Goodbye” while looking out their window.
Greg and Kate are played, respectively, by Todd Tickner and L. J. Stevens. Tickner is right at home playing average Joes and Stevens is one of our more skilled comediennes. The trio develop an easy chemistry with terrific timing and endearing performances all around. Tickner and Levin have to be careful not to exhibit a truly romantic relationship, which can cause concern if not revulsion from the audience if they begin to think there is something more than just a man/dog relationship going on. The playfulness of their performance together is well established in Act I because in Act II, things get a little dicey as Kate begins to be jealous of Sylvia and end up going to see a therapist. If not played right, the suggestiveness in the darker second act could be uncomfortable, but Levin, Tickner, and Stevens breeze right through it.
Rounding out the cast is Bill Sweeney in three roles: Tom, Greg’s macho Central Park friend, whose dog Bowser raises Sylvia’s libido; Phyllis, Kate’s skittish friend who gets mauled by Sylvia; and Leslie, their confusingly androgynous marriage therapist. Gurney calls for all three parts to be played by one actor, a curious choice and one that could ruin the entire play if not performed in just the right way. As good as the other three are, Sweeney steals the show in every scene; his shrieks when Levin starts to sniff up his skirt are apoplectically funny.
Dean Johnson’s solid, comfy set works perfectly, unlike the flimsy design usually seen in many community theaters. Sylvia is a fun, harmless show but parents should be careful to bring younger children because of some suggestive material and Sylvia’s foul dog mouth.
Sylvia plays through May 6 at the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.