Sylvia, A.R. Gurney’s 1995 play, takes on the fairly common and quite serious theme of a crumbling marriage and a man’s midlife crisis. But instead of seeing the male protagonist take up with a younger woman, Gurney has created a charming comedy about a man’s love affair—with a dog.
Granted, it’s a younger, female dog (part Labrador, part French Poodle), but the use of this brilliant conceit allows the actors and the audience to explore a whole slew of emotions through Sylvia (Tanna Frederick), the titular four-legged character of this production, currently playing at the .
However, Sylvia does not crawl around on all fours or wear a pinned on tail or floppy ears. In the hands of Frederick, she’s equal parts goofy kid and seductive siren, and is able to express her thoughts outloud. Still, she manages to embody a unique “dogginess” about her persona.
Dissatisfied with his job and his purpose in life, Greg (Stephen Howard) discovers Sylvia in the park while playing hooky from work—something he’s taken to doing with alarming regularity. He brings her home to his plush New York apartment, and his wife, Kate (Cathy Arden), who wants nothing to do with the dog now that their children are grown.
Kate, who has a demanding job “trying to teach Shakespeare to inner-city school children,” argues that she just wants to be free of responsibilities and spend more time with her husband.
With the arrival of Sylvia, the rift between Greg and Kate pushes their 20-plus-year marriage to the breaking point, with some of the most tense and amusing scenes occurring between Sylvia and Kate as they vie for Greg’s affection and attention.
Sylvia is not an easy play to pull off. It requires perfect casting of the lead actress/dog. Sarah Jessica Parker won rave reviews as Sylvia when the play opened a decade and a half ago on Broadway.
Director Gary Imhoff sailed over that initial hurdle with this production by hiring Frederick, who embraces the role of Sylvia with all the eagerness and tenacity of a rambunctious puppy. Never once does she spill over into caricature. Her Sylvia’s fleas are always in the same place; she can spin on a dime from sweet and adorable to vicious and scathing; and she captures moments of real poignancy and tenderness in some of her more quiet moments with Greg.
Frederick also created all of Sylvia’s costumes herself. While the play itself only calls for three outfits, Frederick told Patch she went to town, changing for practically every scene. Lots of frilly tutus and Madonna (circa 1980s) accessories are on display. There’s even a quick, musical homage to the iconic pop star, which Frederick clearly relishes.
Howard easily takes on the disaffected role of Greg with warmth and tenderness, revealing a man in genuine conflict and desperately trying to figure out a way to keep both his dog and his wife.
Arden, as Kate, has the greatest uphill battle. She’s saddled with a part that hasn’t been written with any great depth, and she’s forced into the “baddie” role from the moment she appears onstage. After all, only a heartless person would say no to an adorable mutt that’s just looking for a loving home.
However, to Arden’s credit, she works hard to find some of the softer aspects of Kate’s character and as the play moves forward, she becomes a solid beacon of sanity in a sea of chaos as Greg becomes more and more obsessed with the dog. Arden also shows a wonderful, comic bent during a delicious scene with her old Vassar friend Phyllis, (Tom Ayers in drag). Ayers also puts in a sweet, comic turn as a man Greg meets at the dog park.
Full disclosure here: I actually directed a production of Sylvia in 1997 in Israel and noticed immediately that a third role that is supposed to be played by Ayers’ character was cut from this production. However, if you’re not aware of this extra character and scene you certainly won’t notice its absence.
Joel Daavid’s lighting is subtle yet effective, and his set perfectly highlights the elegant New York apartment that Greg and Kate have worked so hard for. It’s impossible not to wince as Sylvia throws herself on the expensive couch and slings her doggie toys around the living room with abandon.
Some simple hanging curtains represent the trees into the park and a plain wooden bench placed downstage provides a perfect setting for Greg and Sylvia’s alone time in that park.
Overall, the cast and crew handle this somewhat uneven play admirably. With a few updates in the script, (new political references to the likes of Sarah Palin and Bernie Madoff), it’s clear that Gurney’s piece is timeless.
The only real issue with this production comes in the first half, where Frederick is given free rein onstage and often—unintentionally—upstages everyone else. Imhoff also lets the play gallop along at a breathtaking pace, often missing out on some of the more quiet moments, including a scene at the airport between Greg and Kate that is hijacked by Sylvia sitting at home on the couch waiting for her master to return.
However, in the second act, Imhoff allows all the characters to relax and breathe a little easier. Seeing Frederick take the time to plumb the depths of her character is worth the price of admission alone. It’s here where she truly shines, revealing she has the ability to embrace both the comic aspects of Sylvia and simultaneously tap into some truly, heartbreaking emotions.
You don’t have to be a dog-lover to enjoy Sylvia. Ultimately, this is a play about love, which is, after all, a universal theme. However, if you do have a dog, you’ll find yourself laughing out loud as Frederick speaks the words that dog lovers know their own four-legged companions would say if only we knew how to listen.
Sylvia runs through July 10 at the Edgemar Center for the Arts every Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m.
Admission: $34.99. A limited number of seats at each performance will be available at a discounted price of $25. (Use promo code “Sylvia.”)
Reservations: 310.392.7327; online ticketing: www.edgemarcenter.org
This article was originally published on Mar Vista Patch.