“Sylvia” Less Than Satisfactory

By David A. Rosenberg

Ever see a male driving a car with a dog perched on his lap? Or men and their pets frolicking in the park like high school buddies? Or wonder who’s walking whom when your burly neighbor steps out with his prize Pomeranian?

In “Sylvia,” A. R. Gurney’s charming and amusing comedy now at Long Wharf in a less than satisfactory production, the title character is a tough, foul-mouthed New York mutt – part Lab, part poodle – who so bewitches a menopausal male that she nearly breaks up his marriage. Director Eric Ting ratchets up the play’s physicality and gets decent performances from three of his four cast members. But he over-emphasizes the comedy’s sentimentality and lets one unfortunate casting choice nearly sink the evening.

In a romantic New York of glass and greensward lives Greg, deep into middle-age and hating his Wall Street job. His wife, Kate, is a sincere do-gooder, an inner-city teacher of Shakespeare. Into their lives comes Sylvia, a tough bitch whom Greg found in the park. Half willing to be trained, Sylvia tests her hosts’ limits (“I’ve sat on plenty of couches”) and worships her master (“I think you’re God”).

For all their mutual doting, Greg and Sylvia have an antagonist in Kate who intuits how Sylvia’s becoming the “other woman” in their household. Greg’s increasing attachment to the dog, coupled with his increasing detachment from his wife, is the play’s thread. It climaxes at the end of the first act. “From here on in,” says Kate, “It’s a fight to the finish.” To which Sylvia answers, “Fair enough. And may the best species win.”

Complicating the work are three other characters. There’s macho dog-walker Tom (“A man and his dog is a sacred relationship”); self-consciously proper Phyllis (“Dogs are like children: they need to be thoroughly disciplined from the ground up”); and androgynous marriage counselor Leslie (“I let my patients select my gender”).

That the three parts are limned by the same actor is part of Gurney’s point about the shifting roles that people play. What should be a delicious acting turn is here marred, in a fatal nod to political correctness, by casting Jacob Ming-Trent. Although effective enough as Tom, he not only looks like an effeminate man in bad drag as Phyllis but puts the lie to the WASP line, “Drink is the curse of our generation and the curse of our particular ethnic group.” As the is-it-a-man-or-woman Leslie, Ming-Trent is completely adrift. It's an embarrassing performance, made worse by his-her costumes.

As compensation Erica Sullivan is a feisty Sylvia, even though she and the production are more realistic than necessary. Whether frisking off for a rendezvous with Bowser, the neighborhood stud, prancing into the kitchen to check “le kibble du jour” or half-heartedly rolling over to please Greg, Sullivan is flexible and lively. As Kate, Karen Ziemba gets the over-achiever facade just right, the growing hysteria less so, while John Procaccino’s Greg is properly menopausal if less sophisticated than called for.

The physical production is too literal but what can be expected when director and performers treat the singing of Cole Porter’s ”Ev-ry Time We Say Goodbye” as bring-on-the-tears instead of a sendup? “Sylvia” is one of Gurney’s finest achievements, thin but witty. Despite its serious production flaws, it should please Long Wharf audiences.

 

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