“Sylvia” -- Long Wharf Theatre

--Irene Backalenick

A.R. Gurney is a gifted playwright, who uses a light, witty style to convey his commentary on the human condition. Mostly, Gurney focuses on those of his own background--the upper middle-class WASPS. Their foibles, weaknesses, troubled family relationships are laid bare.

But Gurney takes a somewhat different tack in “Sylvia,” which is now in  revival at Long Wharf Theatre. (The play charmed New York audiences when it first surfaced in 1995.) This time around Gurney’s focus is not man-and-wife so much as man-and-dog. Or rather, a star-crossed triangle—man, wife, and dog.
 
Any one who has ever owned and loved a dog (no doubt, Gurney himself) will relate to this whimsical tale. What is the tale? Sylvia (what a human, feminine name she bears!) is a stray whom Greg picks up in the park. It is love at first sight—on both sides. Greg brings Sylvia back to the New York apartment he shares with his wife. But Kate, no dog lover, is horrified by the intrusion of this muddy, flea-bitten mutt, who promptly jumps on her white couch and urinates under her white chair. “She’s just nervous,” Greg explains. With their grown children out of the nest, Kate simply wants to enjoy her new life, her new-found career. But it is a crisis-time in Greg’s life and work, and Sylvia rescues him from despair. (No wonder the dog, bred over the years, has become man’s best friend!)

Gurney has created a modern fable in which animals think like humans and humans think like animals—humans with doggy traits and dogs with human traits. It is an amazing cross-over, a weaving of separate worlds.

Sylvia (with her ongoing monologue) is a highly-demanding role for any actor, and performances in earlier productions have indeed been brilliant. But Erica Sullivan in this current production never quite takes command of Sylvia, although she acts up a storm as the story reaches its peak and has her tender bonding moments with John Procaccino’s Greg.  Both Procaccino as Greg and Karen Ziemba as Kate get it just right under Eric Ting’s adroit direction. And Jacob Ming-Trent adds considerable richness to the play as he takes over a variety of roles.

All told, this Long Wharf “Sylvia” may suffer by comparison to earlier productions, but it still offers a chance to savor the distinctive Gurney voice. “Sylvia” is great fun, and more than fun—one more Gurney comment on the human condition.

This Equity production runs until Mar. 14. This review also appears in the Connecticut Post and on nytheaterscene.com.

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