Thoughts & Musings

“And They Called it Puppylove . . . “ A.R. Gurney, Jr’s Sylvia (1995)

Discussion Sunday is May 4th

© 2014 by Eileen Warburton

Can you believe it? In the middle-1990s no producer would touch this play.  All the theatres to whom playwright Pete Gurney offered it worried that it was insulting to women to be asked to play a dog. It was sexist. It was misogynistic. It was not PC. Fortunately, Lynne Meadow (a woman), producer at the Manhattan Theatre Club and actress Sarah Jessica Parker (a woman) got the message that this play was a little more than “love me – love my dog.” They launched it, with great results, in May 1995.

Sylvia is a love story, of course, or at least a story about a man’s relationship with one of those magical animals people in stories so often meet just when they’re at a troubling crossroads in life, an animal that is a guide to finding the best in ourselves. (Think of fairytales like “Puss in Boats” or “The Frog Prince,” or of plays like Harvey or even The Goat.) As every pet owner knows well, we humans need a connection with the non-human to figure out our way. We are the better for co-habitating with a creature that can wiggle its way through all our regular emotional defenses. The delightful cleverness of Gurney’s Sylvia, of course, is that our propensity to project human characteristics and motives onto our non-human companions is dramatized by having the adopted dog played by a sexy, adoring young woman. This love story has all the earmarks of a mid-life affair, except that the love-struck straying husband is still happily married to his wife.

Greg and Kate find themselves in one of those “passages” situations in life. They are empty-nesters who have intrepidly left the suburbs to begin the next phase of their lives. For Kate, it’s a happy transition – a shiny new city apartment easily kept tidy and minimalist, a loved and long-awaited new job where she gains success and recognition, an active social life in the city. She’s paid her dues as a mom and supportive spouse and now she wants the life she’s dreamed of. For Greg, however, the transition is awkward and feels barren. His job has become increasingly unfulfilling, he fights with his boss, he misses his kids, he questions his values, he is disconnected from the new life Kate loves so. The answer, as he sees it – is the mysterious arrival of the magical animal when a mangy, flea-bitten, needy stray dog trailing a leash simply jumps into his lap and licks his face. Sylvia needs Greg. Greg needs Sylvia.

At first, having Sylvia in his life is simply about having a purpose again. Greg gets to love someone who adores him. There’s routine, care-giving, and a reason to get up in the morning. Soon, however, life with Sylvia reconnects Greg with parts of himself that have atrophied as he spends reflective hours walking the city, visiting the outdoors in parks and countryside, and having ordinary friendly conversations with all sorts of new people. He begins once more to care for himself and examine what kind of life he actually wants to live. Sylvia’s unconditional love makes him brave enough to make changes. Yet, while Greg’s affaire de coeur with Sylvia is his blessing, Kate finds this smelly, shaggy, sly mutt-mistress a decided curse. Sylvia is messy, dirty, disobedient, attention-demanding, and disruptive – in short, a dog. She undermines all Kate’s carefully developed plans for her new life. Kate responds first with dismay, moves to resentment, and finally arrives at pure, marriage-threatening hatred of the new female in her husband’s life. Swinging between potential murder and potential reconciliation, Sylvia is the exploration of a comic, yet strangely realistic, ménage a trois.

The terrifically prolific Gurney was born Albert Ramsdell Gurney Jr. in Buffalo, New York in 1930. Since his father was called ‘Al,” while an uncle was “Bert,” Gurney’s mother “pulled ‘Peter’ out of a hat” and he’s remained ‘Pete’ ever since, even while writing under his formal initials. He’s regarded as a kind of poet laureate of the American WASP, the upper-middle-class white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who dominated business and politics until the late 1950s and early ‘60s, who went to the “right” schools, knew the “right” people, and lived by an exclusionary social code that all their fellows shared. Pete Gurney, born and bred in this class, profoundly understands it and has eloquently expressed both its quiet strengths and its deepest failings through more than forty successful plays. Covered in awards and theatrical honors, he’s 84 this year and still writing.

Gurney himself is a product of St. Paul’s School, Williams College, service as a US Navy officer, the masters program at Yale University School of Drama, and decades of teaching English literature at MIT – all the smoothly WASPy credentials he could need had he wanted to float in a social bubble through a charmed lifetime. However, from Yale on, Gurney’s well-crafted plays are about the quiet rebellions of people trapped in an increasingly obsolete class of American society – the awkward confrontations, ironic disappointments, and small humorous victories of the more self-aware members of a once dominant tribe. In 1981 the 51-year old Gurney took an earned sabbatical from MIT and drove to New York with the script of The Dining Room (his break-out play) on the seat beside him.  When, after much frustration, The Dining Room was produced, MIT extended Gurney’s sabbatical indefinitely. This enabled Gurney to devote himself to writing full-time. He’s still on sabbatical and has averaged a play a year ever since!

None of Gurney’s plays have debuted on Broadway but, rather, in club theatres and regional houses. At first this was from necessity, since Broadway producers regularly turned him down. Eventually, however, he came to love the community experience of small, less commercial houses. For over thirty years he has worked collaboratively with off-Broadway companies. How fondly he speaks of groups he calls “scrappy and ambitious,” or of their “gutsy choices and commitments,” or of how a small theatre can be “such an exciting arena for young acting aspirants.” He joins forces regularly with a handful of producers and directors, using an A-plus stable of well-known stage actors who love working with him and premiering his plays. “The whole process there is different,” says Gurney, “from rehearsals to hanging out with the audience after the performance – everything is much more communal.”

Gurney is one of those appealing playwrights who is so accessible that he is less appreciated by critics than by audiences. Critics have often been snooty or, as in the case of The New York Times, lukewarm. They don’t like his genteel perspective or his admitted sentimentalism. British critics are even more caustic than American. However, plays like Love Letters (1988), The Cocktail Hour (1988), The Dining Room (1981), Ancestral Voices (1999), and The Grand Manner (2008) (among so many others) have won a devoted international audience. One of the world’s most produced playwrights, Gurney’s success from Europe to China to South America and throughout North America simply “illustrates the point,” Gurney says, “that the more specific you get in your writing, the more general the implications can turn out to be.”

And nothing, apparently, is so universal as loving your dog.

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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