Dog Tames Man

By Geary Danihy

Ever wonder what your pet poodle or spoiled spaniel might be thinking as it cocks its head, seemingly intent on your words of praise or chastisement?

Ever held a conversation with your boxer or collie in which you supplied the pooch’s responses, giving human voice to animal body language, meaning to snarls, growls and yips?

Ever think that your schnauzer or Lhasa Apso had a more intrinsic understanding of your emotional and psychological needs than your human mate?

If you said yes to any of these questions, or if you just want to experience a highly enjoyable evening of theater, then get yourself over to the Long Wharf Theatre to take in its beguiling production of A. R. Gurney’s “Sylvia,” which is aptly subtitled “A Fetching Comedy.”

How should you read “fetching”? Well, Gurney wants you to consider the possibilities: it can mean “very attractive,” as well as convey an ability to magically enchant; it also describes the game played with a dog (Never a cat, perish the thought!) in which something (such as a red, squeaking rubber ball) is thrown and retrieved; and then there is the idea of the price something is worth, as in “What will that fetch?”

All of these meanings are deftly woven into this fanciful comedy whose main conceit is that the role of an ostensibly abandoned dog named Sylvia is played by a young woman, in this case the extremely talented Erica Sullivan, cast as much for her acting ability as for her extremely expressive eyes.

The play opens with Greg (John Procaccino) returning to his Manhattan condo with Sylvia in tow, having come across her (or did Sylvia come across him?) in the park while on an unauthorized afternoon sabbatical from an increasingly frustrating job that now demands he function as a money trader – Euros versus dollars versus…what?

Greg is smitten with Sylvia, whom he describes as part Lab, part poodle. His wife, Kate (Karen Ziemba), is less enchanted. In her view, given that she and Greg are empty-nesters with a busy social schedule and demanding careers, there is simply no room for a dog. She suggests Sylvia is a “mutt” and quickly begins calling her “Saliva.”

The issue, however, is not just that Sylvia is a dog – Sylvia is a female dog whose company Greg seems to enjoy more than that of his wife. He speaks to the dog endearingly, using words his wife has seldom if ever heard directed at her; he takes numerous late-night walks with Sylvia during which the city seems to magically open up for him. In the throes of mid-life crisis, Greg projects onto Sylvia all of his needs and frustrations…and Sylvia responds, for as written by Gurney, she is pooch, playmate, homeless waif, an adored teenage daughter and the “other,” younger woman.

Given Sylvia’s multiple dimensions, much of the production’s success or failure hinges on Sullivan’s ability to switch from persona to persona while making each one believable. This, under Eric Ting’s creative direction, she accomplishes with marked success: her “pooch persona” is dead-on, from checking for “messages” to “humping” the guest and confronting a cat (a hilarious take on the antipathy between the two species). Sullivan conveys a deft sense of what it means (at least from a human’s point of view) to be a canine. She is equally believable in the more “human” roles Greg projects upon her: seductive soul-mate; sulking teen; bewitching enchantress.

A role as powerful as Sylvia’s needs to be counterbalanced if it is not to dominate the play, but this is not something Gurney was able to achieve (perhaps it’s a task well nigh impossible), for Greg and Kate, Sylvia’s adoptive (or adopted) owners, are essentially one-dimensional folks. Greg is the male-menopausal executive adrift on the sea of urban life; Kate is the career-oriented wife set to soar now that the children are gone. Procaccino and Ziemba fill the roles admirably, but without Sylvia bouncing around there’s not much for them to do, for their parts have been written as foils to Sylvia’s antics. When the “pooch” ain’t on stage (which is seldom), the electricity between husband and wife markedly diminishes.

This is nowhere more apparent than in a farewell scene in an airport. Greg is bidding his wife goodbye as she prepares to fly off on business, but it is Sylvia, left alone in the condo, who sets the tone, leading to a delightful moment in which all three sing Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” It is up for grabs as to which voice sings the most heartfelt truth. The two humans sigh as they part; Sylvia bays.

Fortunately, Sylvia doesn’t provide all of the sparks, for there’s a philosophical dog owner named Tom whom Greg meets in the park, a college classmate of Kate’s, Phyllis, who is now a Manhattan doyenne, and a gender-indecisive marriage counselor named Leslie (all played by Jacob Ming-Trent), who provide comedic counterpoints to the main storyline. Although the roles of Phyllis and Leslie are nicely played by Ming-Trent, they are essentially the same person with different jewelry, but he shines as Tom, macho owner of Bowser, a mutt on the make who nails Sylvia, much to the pooch’s delight and Greg’s consternation.    
      
The play labors in its final moments as Gurney attempts to give the proceedings a happy ending. Greg and Kate appear downstage to reminisce about their years with Sylvia. The dialogue is a bit maudlin, but the denouement is saved by the upstage appearance (read that literally and figuratively) of Sylvia, who gleefully attempts to snap at snowflakes. This is Sylvia’s play, and it is fitting that she owns its closing moments.

Growl, woof and snarl, but go see Sylvia mesmerize a couple…and an audience…as she teaches humans the true meaning of commitment and the responsibilities inherent in being a pet’s “god.”

“Sylvia” runs through Sunday, March 14. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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