Sylvia goes to the dogs
By A. R. Gurney. Directed by Johnna Wright. A Gateway Theatre production at the Gateway Theatre on Friday, October 12. Continues until October 27
I’m a doggy guy. A very doggy guy. Smell my car sometime. But Sylvia, A. R. Gurney’s comedy about human-canine affection left me cold.
That’s a big disappointment. I’ve been hearing about Sylvia since it premiered in New York in 1995, and the setup sounds great: a middle-aged guy (Greg) finds a lost pooch named Sylvia in the park and takes her back to the Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife, Kate. Kate doesn’t like Sylvia, and the two battle for Greg’s affection. Sylvia is played by a woman. It sounds like comic gold.
But the laughs in Sylvia should come from recognition, from those “Oh yeah! It’s just like that!” moments, and Gurney only gets the broadest of outlines right. Yes, it’s recognizable when Sylvia drags her ass across the carpet because she’s got worms, but that bit of business is hardly witty or surprising. And, at its core, the relationship between Greg and Sylvia is romantic, which is just plain creepy. In this Gateway production, which is directed by Johnna Wright, Pippa Mackie plays Sylvia as a coquette. But the romantic angle isn’t Mackie’s fault, it’s in the script: when Greg sees Sylvia getting humped by another dog, he’s jealous—which makes me wonder about the play’s popularity.
Greg’s mid-life crisis—he’s a Wall Street guy desperate to connect to something primal—is so simplistic it feels like Gurney is spelling it out with alphabet blocks. And the twist that allows for the play’s happy ending—I won’t give it away in case you’re foolhardy enough to see it—is dramatically unjustified.
Mackie is a charming actor, but not even she can make Gurney’s muddy characterization of Sylvia work; Sylvia should be a clown, but she lacks the essential innocence. Mike Stack delivers an understated, okay Greg. Playing Kate, Lisa Bunting lacks presence, but she, too, is hobbled by Gurney’s text; Sylvia is a female dog but, as written, Kate is the bitch. Daniel Arnold has fun with the showy task of playing multiple roles.
Lauchlin Johnston’s set is stylishly bland. Perhaps that’s supposed to be a commentary on the restricted nature of Greg and Kate’s experience pre-Sylvia, but not much changes after Sylvia’s arrival: an autumnal throw arrives on the beige couch, but that’s it.
I was bored.