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Vol. LXI, No. 31
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
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A.R. Gurney Blends Romance, Comedy and Canine Cleverness, In “Sylvia,” 1995 Crowd-Pleaser at Somerset Valley Playhouse

Donald Gilpin

A dog is a man’s best friend,” says the old proverb. The implications of that notion are staggering.

Note, for starters, that the wise maxim says nothing about a woman. Now imagine a middle-aged man suffering a mid-life crisis, with his children just having left the nest and his wife plunging into her career as an English teacher. Suppose further that the dog is a female — witty, charming, high-spirited and adoring.

A.R. Gurney, in his 1995 “romantic comedy” Sylvia currently running at the Somerset Valley Playhouse, thoroughly explores the intriguing implications of a man’s love for his dog. We’ve all seen people anthropomorphize their pets, talking and interacting with their dogs as if they were human. But Mr. Gurney goes a step further. The dog Sylvia is actually played by a young woman (Dawn Calvert), who not only possesses human qualities to accompany her doggy behavior but also speaks her mind freely, and colorfully, in emotional outbursts of foul language.

The premise is a clever one, and the insights into the world of dogs and human-canine relationships are perceptive and hilarious. Sylvia, disparagingly referred to as “Saliva” by the jealous wife Kate (Heather Giarrusso), moves into the Manhattan apartment of Kate and Greg (Tom Johnston), a bored businessman, and quickly becomes an obsession for both and a threat to their marriage. The conflict is immediate and strong. As the “love triangle” develops, the drama and the laughter grow.

The Somerset Valley Players, in their fortieth year of community theater productions, has staged a crowd-pleasing show under the sure-handed direction of Jak Prince, musical director at West Morris High School in Chester. He has effectively cast and rehearsed his four-person ensemble and ably handled the production elements — set, lighting, sound — himself.

Sylvia runs through August 5 at the Somerset Valley Playhouse on Amwell Road in Hillsborough, with performances Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Call (908) 369-7469 or visit for reservations and further information.

Ms. Calvert, in a role originated by Sarah Jessica Parker at the Manhattan Theater Club, plays a wonderfully detailed and appealing canine. Alternately provoking consternation and affection from her master, Ms. Calvert’s Sylvia delights in cursing the neighborhood cats; defies her owners’ restrictions as she leaps on them and their furniture; tugs at her leash on her happy walks through Central Park; renders a credible and hilarious dog in heat, as she pursues Bowser and the other male dogs; then suffers the debilitating physical and psychological after-effects of being spayed.

Dog lovers will be especially impressed with this performance, but Ms. Calvert’s energy, spirit, and specificity of movement and gesture will win over even the cat-lovers in the audience. Her wide variety of costumes — all human, ranging from the playful (striped stockings, blue-jean shorts with knee pads, a zip-up jumper) to the professionally groomed (in a pink sweater, poodle skirt, hair ribbons and black pumps) to her “promiscuous slut” look and her elegant black sheath dress with high heels and a red choker collar, then her bathrobe during her post-operative convalescence — contribute significantly to the humor and richness of the anthropomorphic characterization.

Mr. Johnston, a befuddled middle-aged businessman, is suffering a mid-life crisis, a disconnection from his primal urges, his marriage, his job, his life. “I want my job to be real … Sylvia is real.” Ms. Giarrusso responds with credible anxiety and frustration in the unenviable role of dog-hating villain. She struggles to hold her marriage together as she begins her new, post-child-rearing life, teaching English to inner-city middle schoolers.

Mr. Johnston and Ms. Giarrusso are mostly convincing in their roles in spite of the script’s occasionally clichéd dialogue, Kate’s awkwardly contrived affinity for quoting Shakespeare, and a clumsy musical interlude.

It is the creatively conceived and executed character sketches, however, that steal the show. In addition to Sylvia, there is a trio of other figures, all skillfully portrayed by the gender-bending Teresa Von den Steinen, who impinge on the married couple’s life.

Ms. Von den Steinen first plays Tom, a colorful New Yorker in leather jacket and sun glasses, a street-wise, philosophical macho dog owner who befriends Greg in Central Park as they observe their dogs together. Then, in a surprising transformation, Ms. Von den Steinen visits the apartment for a short, humorous bit as Kate’s old Vassar classmate, a New York socialite with a distaste for dogs, especially dogs of the down-to-earth Sylvia variety. Finally, she appears in the second act as the androgynous marriage counselor who finds herself unprepared to deal with zoophilia and is driven over the edge by her patients’ obsessions with Sylvia.

Ms. Von den Steinen’s impressive versatility and clever characterizations, richly enhanced by her imaginative costuming, bring the three colorful supporting figures to life. These eccentric figures are dynamic, memorable and humorous.

Mr. Prince moves the action along swiftly and clearly, with comic timing honed carefully to bring out the laughs, as Sylvia’s doggy behavior repeatedly surprises and entertains. The minimalist set, depicting Greg and Kate’s Manhattan apartment at center stage and Central Park on the downstage apron, is economical (despite an oddly symbolic shiny red ball on a pedestal upstage left) and effective in staging the action.

Mr. Gurney, still writing now in his late seventies, rose to prominence with The Dining Room (1981), and during the ensuing quarter century has repeatedly demonstrated his unparalleled ability to depict the upper class world of the WASPs, struggling to hold onto their dusty values and traditions. Sylvia represents a deviation from Mr. Gurney’s customary emphasis on the WASP theme, and, beyond its brilliant premise — anthropomorphized dog, played by an actress, as the main character — Sylvia does not measure up to Mr. Gurney’s finest plays (The Cocktail Hour and Love Letters, both from 1988, in addition to The Dining Room). With its incisive depiction of the canine world, however, and its astonishingly sharp and funny dialogue, Sylvia has remained a popular favorite since its successful New York premiere twelve years ago.

Tom, the plain-talking owner of Sylvia’s friend Bowser, advises Greg during one of their meetings in the Park, “Always remind yourself that your dog is only a dog.” As St. Augustine lamented to God, “Thou has counseled a better course than Thou hast permitted.”

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