If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

To The Dogs at Long Wharf          

 

One of A.R. Gurney’s most popular plays, “Sylvia”, is currently in revival at the Long Wharf Theatre.  The prolific Connecticut playwright had one of his biggest commercial hits with “Sylvia”, the tale (tail?) of Greg, a married New Yorker in the midst of a severe mid-life crisis who, one day, finds a vivacious pooch in the park and promptly decides to give her a home.  His wife is not pleased but Greg’s new soul mate has never felt more loved.  Conflict ensues.   Although unevenly cast, the Long Wharf production directed by Eric Ting found plenty of friends on opening night.

Regular readers know there is no bigger fan of Gurney’s work than this critic, but I have to admit that his “Sylvia” is not one of my favorite plays.  It’s clever and sweet in all the right places but it also seems to rely more heavily on a central gimmick than any of his other works.  That gimmick, of course, is the playing of the dog by a very human – and usually sexy – young woman.  There is also the inherent “creepy factor” that rears its ugly head in some renderings of the play (this being one) where Greg seems to take more than a pet owner’s interest in Sylvia.  The problematic casting of John Procaccino as Greg at Long Wharf adds to this.

Mr. Procaccino does not seem a natural fit for Greg or for the WASP upper-crust boy/man that Gurney has written.  He projects more blue-collar than Wall Street; more Oscar Madison than Felix Unger.  Part of the humor of “Sylvia” comes from this well-bred man taking up with a common mutt.   Oddly enough, Procaccino’s Greg seems more mutt than Sylvia herself and he demonstrates little natural chemistry with her.  The other male cast member at Long Wharf is also a disappointment.  In no less than three choice supporting roles (two of them female), Jacob Ming-Trent broadly overplays both Greg’s dog-owning friend and the blue-blooded dowager paying his wife a visit.  The dowager is barely distinguishable from Ming-Trent’s third role, the odd he/she therapist he plays late in the second act.

There is, however, some very good news concerning the female half of this production.  Erica Sullivan is everything you could want in a Sylvia – adorable, perky and full of zest.  When she spies a cat on one of her many walks with Greg, Sullivan lets loose with an exhilarating tirade (prepare yourself for some very blue language) that shakes the rafters.  She is equal parts sexy, funny and vulnerable – someone you definitely would allow to fetch your slippers or sleep on the couch.  There is also fine support from Broadway veteran Karen Ziemba in the somewhat thankless role of Greg’s wife.  As she becomes increasingly unhinged by the arrival of her husband’s new companion, Ziemba remains sympathetic, smart and likable.

Frank J. Alberino’s Ikea-inspired setting for the Manhattan apartment works fine but it fails to adapt smoothly to the other areas required by the play which include an airport waiting room and a dog park.  Valerie M. Webster’s costuming is commendable and the decision to have Sylvia wear one of Greg’s t-shirts after a particular difficult vet visit is inspired.  Ben Stanton’s autumnal lighting for the park scenes is also quite lovely.

Though not an ideal production of Mr. Gurney’s much-produced comedy, this “Sylvia” still may manage to charm even those non-dog lovers in the crowd. 

 “Sylvia” continues at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre through March 14th.  For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.

Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.
This review appeared in Elm City Newspapers beginning on March 3, 2010

 


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