You’ll fall head over heels for ‘Sylvia’
Dogs can win your heart, but they can also destroy your best pair of pumps… and possibly even your marriage.
This is what Greg and Kate discover in A.R. Gurney’s “Sylvia,” when a stray dog jumps into Greg’s lap and into the couple’s life.
Greg wants to keep her; his wife just as adamantly doesn’t.
Playing at Florida Repertory Theatre through Jan. 23, this crowd-pleaser is part pro-canine manifesto and part portrait of a marriage wobbling in a rough spot.
Like many married couples, Greg and Kate embraced the traditional roles: He worked while she raised the children and took care of all things domestic. Now their children are off to college and they’ve moved from the suburbs to the city. Kate wants to make the most of the empty nest and use her talents in the bigger world.
Greg, on the other hand, has had enough of the working world. He’s restless, dissatisfied. He wants to do something meaningful. He wants to slow down and appreciate the world around him.
“I need to feel more connected… to life, to living,” he declares at one point.
These two desires, of course, are at cross-purposes.
It’s a classic mid-life dilemma in many marriages.
The clichéd thing for the man to do is: have an affair, buy a red convertible or run off and marry someone young enough to be his daughter.
Greg doesn’t do any of those things. Instead, he finds a dog and brings her home.
He then proceeds to lavish all of his love and affection on her, which she readily reciprocates, all the while ignoring his wife, taking her for granted.
It’s not a physical affair, a la Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or, Who is Sylvia?” (another Sylvia!), in which a married man falls in love with a goat. But it sure is an emotional one. Greg treats Sylvia almost like a mistress.
The comedic lynchpin of the play is that the dog is played by a woman who, while displaying canine mannerisms, speaks to the humans.
To say that Michelle Damato is well cast as Sylvia would be an understatement; it’s almost as if Mr. Gurney wrote the role specifically for her.
She’s uncannily doglike, bursting with puppy energy, turning in circles before lying down, resting her head on her master’s knee, going berserk whenever she hears the word “out.”
Director Maureen Heffernan’s gentle touch can be seen here; she’s known for her nurturing direction and letting actors take risks in discovering their character. Many of the funny parts are Ms. Damato’s creation in embodying a dog.
Anyone who’s seen her in Florida Rep’s productions of “Almost, Maine” or “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” knows Ms. Damato possesses great comedic skill. She mines a scene for a laugh without playing a character too broadly. She also conveys the full spectrum of emotions: As Sylvia, she’s coy, flirtatious, proud, defiant and sassy; one moment a tomboy, the next, a lady.
In one of the night’s best scenes, she curses out a cat with full New York street bravado.
Ms. Damato is completely adorable and — I mean this in the nicest way — completely believable as a dog.
The play is undeniably hers.
Her transformation is assisted by Roberta Malcolm’s creative costume design. Early in the play, when Sylvia is a scruffy stray, her pigtails look like floppy ears and she wears a brown fur-like vest, leg warmers and fingerless gloves; after she’s been to the groomer, she’s fancy in a sheer black tutu and sparkly red bows in her hair.
Gordon McConnell and Carrie Lund have the thankless job of playing Greg and Kate. One wonders if they ever ruefully think about W.C. Fields’ admonition to never work with animals or children. Although they do a gallant job, Mr. McConnell and Ms. Lund are continually upstaged by Sylvia.
Kate, especially, comes off as the villain. She explains that she loves dogs but just doesn’t want one in her life right now. For the most part, she’s grim and negative, like politicians who don’t know what they’re for and can only rail about what they’re against.
Ms. Lund does the best with the material she has, but truthfully, the playwright doesn’t give her much to work with.
We also never see the marriage in its better moments, so it’s difficult to cheer for it when we’re so entertained by the antics of a frisky canine.
Mr. McConnell is dreamy-eyed whenever he’s around Sylvia, but his character comes across a little shabby at times, such as when he belittles his wife’s career, referring to it as a phase some women go through. He’s a cur himself; he’s not emotionally engaged with his wife, but is willing to lavish praise and attention on the dog.
Chris Clavelli is a bright spot whenever he’s onstage. In “Sylvia,” he plays three distinct and quirky roles: a philosophizing, macho dog owner who refuses to neuter his pet; an Upper East Side socialite who’s so appalled by Sylvia she falls off the wagon; and a therapist of indeterminate gender. The audience loved Mr. Clavelli so much that on opening night he received well-deserved exit applause whenever his characters left the stage.
Set designer Ray Recht, who’s designed for Broadway and off-Broadway, has created a set that’s almost
Zen-like in its simplicity: a clean, modern Manhattan apartment, with multitudes of windows in the background.
Greenery stage left and stage right is a dog park that quickly transforms into a therapist’s office and an airport terminal.
“Sylvia” is like a big friendly puppy: funny and entertaining and sometimes naughty. You can’t help but laugh at its antics.
As Greg declares at one point, everyone should own a dog. The world would be a better place. ¦
in the know
>>What: “Sylvia” >>When: through Jan. 23 >>Where: Florida Repertory Theatre,
2267 First St., in the historic
Arcade Theatre on Bay Street between Hendry and Jackson >>Cost: $44, $30 and $20 >>Info: 332-4488 or www.floridarep.org