Sylvia at 2nd Story Theatre
It just might make you go out and get a dog.by Kathie Raleigh, Woonsocket Call
There is a love triangle at the center of “Sylvia,” but the other woman isn’t a woman. She’s a dog.
A.R. Gurney’s hilarious story about Greg, Kate and the dog that comes between them closes the regular season in 2nd Story Theatre’s new Downstage space, and it’s a winner. The production is full of laughs, from the out-loud kind to ones that simply make you smile, along with some knowing satire about the foibles of middle age.
The principal humans in this tale, Greg and Kate, are empty nesters. Their children are in college, and the couple recently has moved into a cool apartment in New York City. Kate is embracing this new phase in her life, focusing on a teaching career that had been put on hold.
Greg, on the other hand, is finding less and less satisfaction in his job and has taken to skipping out of work early to spend contemplative afternoons in the park. That’s where a stray mutt with a tag bearing her name, Sylvia, leaps into his lap and, as only a dog can, ingratiates herself.
Who could resist such unconditional love? Certainly not a man at loose ends in his life, but definitely a woman who finally is devoting time to her own interests and aspirations. The more time Greg spends with Sylvia, the more Kate resents the dog she calls Saliva, and she fails to see why Greg would ditch plans for Spanish lessons or a chamber music concert to, what, go play in the park with Sylvia?
What ensues, however, is not all-out warfare. Believing that Greg and Kate still love each other is crucial to the success of the production, and under Pat Hegnauer’s insightful direction, Ed Shea and Sharon Carpentier make it so. Shea steps out from his usual behind-the-scenes role of 2nd Story’s artistic director to portray Greg as head-over-heels in love but with a hint of understanding, intellectually anyway, that he’s being a little absurd.
Carpentier, meanwhile, plays the conflicting emotions of her character with authenticity and warmth. She’s convincing in her worries about her foundering husband, in her excitement about her own work, and what the push and pull could mean to their 22-year marriage.
Of course, they both talk to Sylvia about their concerns. (Who doesn’t talk to their dog?) But in this case, Sylvia answers, and whether or not you believe those are Sylvia’s own thoughts or only what Greg and Kate think she’s thinking is immaterial. What is clear, however, is that the playwright can think like a dog and gives her some great lines.
And Lara Hakeem delivers them with great expression as Sylvia. Hakeem doesn’t play a dog per se but rather the demeanor of a dog, and she nails it. She gazes with adoration at Greg, whom she identifies as a god and begs to sit at his side: “Nearer my god to thee,” she sighs.
She tries to impress Kate, but does all the wrong things, like jumping excitedly and, when told to sit, making herself at home on the sleek new couch. Do not, however, expect Sylvia to tolerate cats. She hates them, and seeing one evokes a tirade of obscenities that roll off Hakeem’s tongue hilariously.
Sylvia’s conversations with Greg are smart enough until one nighttime stroll under the stars when Greg waxes philosophical and her doggie brain just can’t keep up. But that doesn’t mean she can’t snuggle comfortingly.
Hakeem’s performance is the lynchpin of the production, and she’s not only a fabulous dog but also a fabulous comedian.
Three additional characters offer even more laughs. Tom is the owner of a male dog that Sylvia finds attractive; he also is an unending source of pop psychology about dog ownership, which he inflicts on Greg. Phyllis is one of Kate’s sophisticated friends from Vassar, affronted by Sylvia’s sniffy greeting. Then there is Leslie, an androgynously dressed, new-age shrink whose technique involves letting her clients, Greg and Kate, decide if she is a man or a woman, depending on their needs.
All three are written for humor, but the biggest laugh is the sight of Jim Sullivan, an actor with a gift for comic understatement, playing all of them.
While Sylvia is the catalyst in the play, the story is about Greg’s and Kate’s relationship, and Gurney resolves it in a sweetly sentimental way. It just might make you go out and get a dog.