A.R. Gurney's play about a man and his dog is fun but makes a mess of its message
Reviewed by Hannah Kenah, Fri., Nov. 28, 2008
Austin Playhouse, through Dec. 28
Running time: 2 hr, 10 min
A dog is a man's best ... lover?
Though there is never any bestiality in A.R. Gurney's Sylvia, the line between furry pal and mistress definitely gets blurry. The play runs the gamut from cute to facile to moving. Unfortunately, Austin Playhouse's production has more of the first two qualities than the last.
The essential gimmick here is that Sylvia is a dog but is played by a human. All of the dilemmas, the surprises, and the humor stem from that device. It is a pleasing premise but so simple that it can become predictable.
Greg and Kate are a wealthy couple living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Their kids have left for college, so Kate is pursuing a midlife career, and Greg is pursuing a midlife crisis. He is a lawyer and has grown bored with his work, which he repeatedly describes as no longer seeming "real." When the play opens, we find Greg and a frisky blonde named Sylvia together in his apartment. (It helps at this point to imagine that you do not yet know that Sylvia is a dog.) She is smelling the furniture. He is nervously awaiting his wife's return. Kate gets home and is irked. She doesn't want a dog in their small apartment. She doesn't want to clean up messes while Greg has all the fun. And so it goes. Greg falls further and further in love with Sylvia, devoting all his time and energy to her, even losing his job. Kate grows more and more furious as she watches her husband disappear into his affection for "the other."
Michael Stuart's direction reaches for the obvious humor rather than digging deeper into the true challenge of this script – finding the distinction between different kinds of love. Andrea Osborn is a talented actor and could have gone in more subtle directions with the title role. She is fully committed and fun to watch, but her dog antics become a bit one-note. The production's take on Sylvia is very tongue-in-cheek. More look-how-cute-I-am than the self-unconscious affection of an actual four-legged creature. The result is that Sylvia is more amusing than lovable, and that undermines our ability to eventually side and sympathize with Sylvia over the jealous Kate.
The evening belongs to Bernadette Nason, who plays Kate. Her fury, her hurt, and her resorting to drinking are great fun and greatly endearing, providing a complex offset to Sylvia's simple personality. Nason carries the world of the play most vividly. You believe this woman has kids in college, has a mortgage to worry over, has the city of Manhattan to impress. David Stahl is a great Greg. He is enamored with Sylvia and disenchanted with his own life. He is oblivious to the hurt he is causing Kate. He is a lost little boy in the form of a middle-aged man.
Sylvia is confused in its message. It wants to be about a man's relationship with his dog, but it also wants to be about "the other" that can enter a relationship and destroy it. It wants to make Kate's suffering real, but it doesn't want to send Sylvia away. In an abrupt maneuver, the very end of the play has Kate deciding: "Ah, what the heck? You can keep her." (A moving monologue by Osborn about the ferocity of a dog's love for her master helps to sell this sudden change of heart.) Ultimately, this play seems to be an argument for owning a dog. Or for dog obsession as a healthy manifestation of a midlife crisis. Or for the feasibility of loving a dog and a wife simultaneously. It is certainly a fun evening, but in the end, this cute play about a dog doesn't leave you with much to chew on.