"Have you seen this play before?" asked the first man.
The second man shook his head, smiled, and said "I've lived it."
That exchange helps to explain why Sylvia has been one of the most popular comedies in regional theaters for over a decade. A.R. Gurney's tale of a dog and her owners blends a clever approach with recognizable situations and characters, and, for the most part, the dialogue and the plot feel natural and believable. It's not a particularly challenging play, sometimes going for laughs that feel too easy, sometimes relying on minor characters that are too self-consciously wacky. And the sentimental closing scenes don't seem like a natural extension of what has come before; they feel roughly tacked on just to send the audience home feeling good. But Sylvia isn't a trifle, either. At its best, it's a perceptive view of the lives of dogs and their owners. And it's really funny.
Greg and Kate have been married 22 years, and their youngest child is away at college. While Kate is satisfied with her teaching job, Greg feels adrift working in finance. Then Greg finds a stray dog named Sylvia and takes her home. Kate doesn't want Sylvia around ("The dog phase of my life is definitely over," she says), but her complaints are ignored. "We keep making these arrangements," Kate complains to a friend, "and he keeps breaking them, like Hitler." Pretty soon Greg's job takes a back seat to his concentration on Sylvia, and eventually his marriage does, too. Kate senses the marriage is fracturing due to this "other woman," but Greg blithely insists that nothing is wrong. As for Sylvia, she worships Greg, which only makes him jealous when she's in heat and turns her attention to a stud named Bowser. Greg tells Sylvia she has to be spayed, saying "It's for your own good." "Oh yeah, sure," says Sylvia, rolling her eyes. "Tell me another."
How do we know this? Well, Sylvia isn't a talking dog, but in Gurney's world, we hear Sylvia's thoughtsor at least what Greg and Kate suppose her thoughts are. Sylvia is played by Jessica Bedford, who is suitably adorable, whether she's begging for attention, jumping naughtily on the living room couch, or cursing at a cat. Director Harriet Power gives her a lot of room to act wild, while Greg Wood and Mary Elizabeth Scallen, as Greg and Kate, are stuck having to act like, well, humans. Wood is terrific as a nice guy who can'tor won'tsee all the problems his new obsession causes, while Scallen's frustration at her husband's midlife crisis is just as persuasive. Power never tilts the audience's sympathies in either actor's direction. Paul Felder plays three supporting characters of various genders, with mixed success.
Bedford is curiously convincing as Sylvia, even though there's nothing canine about her appearance. Rosemarie McKelvey's clever costumes range from bohemian duds when Sylvia goes for a walk to an elegant cocktail dress when she returns from the groomer's. And Dirk Durossette's elegant set suggests midtown Manhattan with a minimum of fuss.
Sylvia sometimes seems a bit too calculated in its efforts to pull at the heartstrings, but it earns its laughs and its tears. It isn't perfect, but it's witty, uplifting and worth checking out.
Sylvia runs through October 2, 2011, at Act II Playhouse, 56 East Butler Avenue, Ambler, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices range from $27 to $33, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-654-0200, online at www.act2.org or in person at the box office.