Catch Sylvia at Long Wharf-It's a Ball

By Amy J. Barry

I was surprised by the number of people at opening night of Sylvia at Long Wharf who had seen the show at least one or more times-it opened in New York in 1995 with Sarah Jessica Parker in the title role and continues to be produced on a regular basis in regional theaters.
But as soon as the lights went down, I realized why the play garners so much enthusiasm-besides being about man's best friend. It's purely delightful, very funny, beautifully written-classic A.R. Gurney-and is about the themes in life that never get stale-keeping a long-term marriage together, keeping boredom at bay, searching for that elusive thing called happiness, and ultimately connecting and being heard.
And Long Wharf's production is no disappointment.
Eric Ting's direction is so spot-on but invisible that one is drawn into the lives of the characters without ever feeling the obtrusion of the play's creators.
The small ensemble is exceptional. Erica Sullivan plays Sylvia, the cute and captivating stray dog Greg (John Procaccino) finds abandoned in New York's Central Park and brings home to the chagrin of his wife Kate (Karen Ziemba). Jacob Ming-Trent performs three humorous roles: Tom-a guy's guy who befriends Greg in the park while Sylvia plays-and later does the deed-with his dog Bowser; Phyllis, Kate's socialite friend, who lends Kate her ear as she becomes increasingly jealous of Sylvia, admitting "I think I hate Sylvia-I never though I could hate anyone but Nixon"; and Leslie, the over-the-top androgynous psychotherapist who counsels Greg and Kate.
The genius in Sylvia is that Gurney wrote it for the actor to appear human, not wearing a dog costume, which not only leaves more up to our imaginations, but because we personify our pets, seeing Sylvia as an actual woman, acting like a dog, makes us see her relationship with Greg and Kate on a deeper, psychological level, and also brings out the absurdities in the ways we relate to our canine friends. As Sylvia and Greg become more like lovers than pet and owner, sexy skirts and high heels replace Sylvia's shorts and kneepads.
Body language is what's critical in portraying Sylvia and Sullivan has it down pat balancing the naïve, unconditional love of a dog in her joyous bouncing around and wide-eyed wonder in the couple's city apartment to her instinctual out of control response when she sees a cat, lunging at it and spewing foul-mouthed epithets, or when she goes into heat and goes after Bowser, observed by the horrified Greg and amused Tom.
Recent empty nesters can relate to Greg and Kate and Procaccino and Ziemba are thoroughly believable in these roles -even if the situations are outlandish.
Greg is unhappy in a job that has become increasingly more abstract and less hands-on and Sylvia comes along just when he needs something real, something tangible that gives his life purpose. Kate, on the other hand is finally able to seriously pursue a teaching career with the last kid off to college and doesn't want the responsibilities of dog ownership now that she finally has her freedom.
Greg and Kate become polarized over Sylvia, unable to compromise.
"You've managed to chew a huge hole in a 22-year-old marriage," Kate says to Sylvia, whom she purposely accidentally calls Saliva, unable to offer Greg the same unconditional love he gets from his new dog. But ultimately the couples' love and long-term commitment overcomes their self-interest and when they start to give and get what they need from one another, Sylvia's role in their lives is gently put into perspective.
Sylvia is a frolicking tour de force and a great lesson in what we can learn from our dogs about ourselves-and I probably will never look at Penny Lane, our rescue Jack Russell terrier, the same way again, now that I've seen this marvelous play.
Sylvia is at Long Wharf Theatre.  222 Sargent Drive, New Haven through March 14. Long Wharf is accepting donations of dog food, dog treats, leashes, and bleach throughout the run of the play on behalf of the New Haven Animal Shelter. Donations can be dropped off in the Mainstage lobby from 10 a.m. to 6 pm. or on the nights of performances. For tickets and information, call 203-787-4282 or online
This review was published in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers and online, March 10-11, 2010.

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