By Fran Syverson
It’s midlife crisis time for Greg. Time for an affair? For a sizzling red convertible? For a dog named Sylvia?
Feeling stifled in his job, Greg skips work one afternoon and takes a walk in New York’s Central Park and returns to his swanky apartment with Sylvia. She’s a frisky young thing, and full of excitement as she sniffs around her new home. Greg tries to calm her down before his wife arrives from work—to little avail. Sylvia leaps against Greg, paws him, tells him “Greg, I love you! You’re my god!”
Tells him? Yes, Sylvia and Greg can talk—oh, can they talk! And we settle in for an evening’s ribald laughter mixed with some poignant pathos. Dog-lovers will be captivated, but so will non-aficionados.
Kate gets home and, to her dismay, finds her husband enamored of his new pet. Kate will have none of it. She’s raised their family and has re-entered the career world, in her case teaching Shakespeare to students in an underprivileged community. Her life has a new purpose, wherein she can make the world a better place. It’s completely counter to Greg’s sense of his job, which to him in his burned-out phase, seems meaningless.
No dog, says Kate.
Just for a few days, says Greg.
I love it here, says Sylvia.
No dog, says Kate.
Sylvia sidles up to Greg and says, “She doesn’t like me, does she?”
She will, says Greg.
Thus begins an emotional tug-of-war in one of the most unlikely and hilarious ménage a trios seen onstage. It’s really Greg and Kate who are watching their lives unravel. But Sylvia’s unexpected entrance into those lives provides the focus for the couple as they try to sort things out between them. They’re soon entrenched in frequent spats about Sylvia.
Sylvia, meantime, becomes entrenched, too. She takes over the apartment, flopping on the sofa—decidedly a no-no—whenever Kate is not there. And gets away with it, for Greg indulges her. Her toys are in chairs and underfoot. And the afternoon strolls in the park become a daily event, putting Greg’s job on the line. But he doesn’t care. It seems he’s in love—with a dog!
Ah, the park! They begin to frequent a dog park, and soon Sylvia meets Bowser, Tom’s dog. Tom warns Greg how a dog can disrupt a marriage, and even offers a book on the subject. And they watch their pets from afar, with their predictable dalliances.
So—this is the fanciful story, sort of. But that’s not what attending this play is about. It’s about watching the wildly funny antics, enjoying the belly-laughs, and marveling at how soon one almost believes that Sylvia IS a dog! Tanna Frederick is virtually gymnastic in her leaping, rolling, crawling, cuddling personification of Sylvia. And her facial expressions and her prattle keep pace with her gyrations. (Yes, you’ll see some gyrations, all right, in one of the park scenes. There’s enough innuendo here that you might want to leave the kiddies home with a sitter when you attend.)
This play beggars all description, it is so much a “you-had-to-have-been-there” performance. The comic energy must be experienced, not described.
That energy exudes from not only Sylvia, but also from the three others in the cast. Stephen Howard as Sylvia’s benefactor brings all the angst of one torn between a new love and an overriding disillusionment with life. Cathy Arden as Kate is terrific in her incredulity at finding her husband enamored of the “other woman” who just happens to be a dog.
Three supporting roles are well-handled by only one Frank Dooley. He’s Tom, friendly adviser about dogs at the park. In drag he portrays Phyllis, a close friend who pays a consoling visit to Kate—full of good advice until she actually meets the far-too-friendly Sylvia. And he plays the role of an androgynous shrink named, interestingly, a non-gender-specific “Leslie” who desperately tries to counsel the married couple.
While waiting for the curtain, you can enjoy the lobby displays, fittingly, about dogs. Also, an improvised “dog house” begs for “treats”—donations to benefit the rain-collapsed roofs at the San Gabriel Humane Society.
Lois Tedrow again blesses the Playhouse with her costume designs. Under her deft touch, Sylvia sometimes evokes a mutt image with floppy ponytails. Other times after Greg takes her to be groomed, she’s a doggie prima donna in pink and black tutus, strutting as if she were a poodle, hair piled high and held with glittery bows.
Written by A.R. Gurney, “Sylvia” is produced by Christine Helppie Soldate who is also program designer. Directing the play is Gita Donovan. Eugene J. Hutchins is stage manager and lighting tech. Jennifer Scott captured the essence of an upscale New York apartment with her multiple roles as set designer and, along with her crew, set construction. She and Hutchins manage the properties.
Nathan Lancaster is assistant stage manager and sound tech. Stephanette Isabel Smith designed the lighting, and Barry Schwam the sound. Kate VanDevender is responsible for poster art designs and layouts. Claudia Vazquez handles social media contacts. Lia Pearson is production photography, and Philip Sokoloff publicity.
“Sylvia” will continue at the Sierra Madre Playhouse weekends through Feb. 19. Curtain time is 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. for Sunday matinees. Admission is $20 general, $17 for seniors (65+) and students under 18, and $12 for children 12 and under.
The Sierra Madre Playhouse is located at 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. City lots offer free parking. Pre- or post-theater dining at local restaurants on Baldwin Avenue and Sierra Madre Boulevard can enhance your theater-going experience. For ticket reservations or more information, phone (626) 355-4318, or visit the website, www.sierramadreplayhouse.org, for online ticketing. For reservations for groups of 15 or more people, phone (626) 836-2125.