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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

A.R. Gurney's Hilarious Sylvia at George Street

Also see Bob's review of Orestes: A Tragic Romp

Sylvia
Kathleen McNenny, Rachel Dratch and
Boyd Gaines

Wow, or, maybe I should say, bow-wow. How could an adult comedy in which the leading role is for an actress portraying a dog succeed or even be bearable? Fortunately, A.R. "Pete" Gurney had the imagination, talent and audacity to successfully conceive and create such a comedy, the hilarious and brilliant 1995 Sylvia. Although Sylvia is overly long, and meanders during the latter part of the second act, it provides beaucoup originality and laughter.

After raising their children in the suburbs, Greg and Kate have moved to a New York City apartment which on James Youmans' snazzy and witty set appears to be nearby to Central Park. Greg is a successful, but burned out financial trader. Kate has recently acquired a master's degree and is becoming recognized as an innovative school teacher. With just a few words, Gurney effectively conveys his respect for the dedicated public school teacher.

Greg has taken the afternoon off from work and gone to the park where he has picked up or, as truly seems to be the case, been picked up by a lost and/or abandoned dog. The dog, part Labrador, part poodle, is wearing a collar bearing the name Sylvia. She and Greg have already bonded. When Kate gets home, all of her rational objections to keeping the dog go for naught against Greg and Sylvia's determination that Sylvia remain with them, and Kate agrees to allow Sylvia to remain on a trial basis. From the first, there is a rivalry between Sylvia and Kate which will grow to threaten Greg and Kate's marriage. The rivalry is fraught with psycho-sexual implications. Yet Gurney chronicles it with such adroitness and clever psychological detail that, while we laugh at the play's absurdist insanity, our efforts not to believe it go for naught.

The cast is superlative. Rachel Dratch is a delightful Sylvia. In her gestures, movement and facial expressions, she is, well, a dog. Aside from her physical form and the fact that she speaks, she is completely and hilariously canine. While performing this full-time job, Dratch also creates a dimensional, quite manipulative and sensual persona. Although there is no lack of witty anthropomorphism here, Sylvia doesn't have the power of speech, so when Dratch talks, her words are verbalizations of Greg and Kate's and the viewer's observations of her behaviors.

Boyd Gaines combines humor and poignancy in his portrayal of Greg. He subtly displays the connection between his job crisis at the moment of Kate's emergence and his need for the companionship of Sylvia by stringing together the notes of quirky nervous anxiety with which he approaches each without losing a scintilla of the hilarity of Greg's discomfort over the sexual overtones of his feelings toward Sylvia. Kathleen McNenny is sympathetic and dimensional as the realistic voice of reason in the household.

Stephen DeRosa plays three cameo roles. He plays Kate's friend Phyllis, an alcoholic society lady who lunches and whose husband has a thing for their goldfish, to fine comic effect. His marriage counselor Leslie is too silly and insufficiently androgynous. DeRosa is at his considerable best as Tom, a fellow dog lover whom Greg meets during his dog walking visits to the park. The first scene of the second act during which Greg and Tom watch Tom's Bowser get it on with Sylvia is one of the most perversely funny scenes in our stage literature. Sylvia's brazen lust is a given, but Tom's vicarious pleasure and Greg's discomfort and jealousy provide mind-bending hilarity. Writing this bold and clever is too rare on our stages.

Director David Saint has cast smartly, eliciting rich, nuanced performances which maximize the effectiveness of the play.

Particularly outstanding is the imaginative set designed by James Youmans. The set and properties serve the play perfectly as they quickly and smoothly change and wittily move about to take us to various locations about the City. Their cartoon-like design enhances the absurdities of the text. The floor sports a green rug for Greg and Kate's apartment which gracefully raises upstage into a sweeping arc that suggests grassed parkland. The window for the apartment is a giant, floor to ceiling, almost full-stage opening behind which is a vista of cutouts of buildings and parkland which changes throughout the play for each location. When Greg and Sylvia take a night walk, a tree and fire hydrant roll to stage left as the two pass by them moving to stage right. There is even more terrific stuff to discover in Youmans' truly special scenic design.

Sylvia has a sentimental ending which will warm the cockles of the hearts of all dog lovers.

Sylvia continues performances (Tuesday - Saturday 8 pm (except. 4/8) / Sunday 7 pm (except. 4/25) /Matinees: Saturday and Sunday 2 pm/ Thursday 4/8 & 4/22 - 2 pm through April 25, 2010 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Box Office: 732-246-7717; online: www.GSPonline.org.

Sylvia by A.R. Gurney; directed by David Saint

Cast
Greg............................................Boyd Gaines
Sylvia........................................Rachel Dratch
Kate...................................Kathleen McNenny
Tom/Phyllis/Leslie.................Stephen DeRosa

Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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- Bob Rendell



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