By Sam Hurwitt
It seems appropriate that when I sat down to write my review of “Sylvia,” our new dog climbed into my lap, making typing impossible. A.R. Gurney’s popular 1995 comedy explores how adopting a dog affects the life and marriage of a middle-aged professional couple in New York City.
Interestingly enough, it’s the second traveling production of a Gurney play that a Marin company has staged in the last couple of months, after Porchlight Theatre Company’s “Love Letters” in April.
“Sylvia” comes to Mill Valley, Berkeley and San Francisco courtesy of Independent Cabaret Productions and Shakespeare at Stinson, which is a single company with two names; it’s been years since it performed at Stinson or did any Shakespeare, but it’s taking a while to fully commit to the new name.
Much of “Sylvia” is about commitment. Husband Greg brings home a stray dog from the park one day and falls instantly in love with her, much to wife Kate’s dismay. The more Kate insists that there’s no room for Sylvia in their lifestyle, the more the dog becomes the center of the household and of Greg’s world. This is not to be confused with Edward Albee’s 2002 play “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” about a marriage threatened by the husband having a love affair with a goat. What we learn from the American theater is that wives would be wise to be wary of animals named Sylvia.
Gurney’s play is often very funny, almost entirely because of the gimmick of the talking dog. Sylvia is played by a human actress — in this case Sami J. Granberg — in regular feminine clothing rather than a dog costume, simpler or fancier depending on how well groomed she is that day. Although her energy and some of her movements are canine, she carries on normal conversations in English, and everyone can understand what she’s saying and respond in kind, although it’s understood that nothing she’s doing is out of the ordinary. Her barks are appropriately translated as “Hey! Hey! Hey!”
It’s easy to see why Greg’s so infatuated with Sylvia. In a priceless performance by Granberg, she’s infectiously boisterous, upbeat and eager to please, doting on Greg — and everyone, really — with unconditional love. She’s impishly mischievous in her constant attempts to talk her way into being allowed to sit on the furniture and her unconvincing claim to be housetrained. She’s also amusingly foul-mouthed, especially when she’s in heat or cussing out a cat.
It’s clear that Greg is a little too obsessed with his new dog. He keeps blowing off work to take her for walks and teach her tricks. Played by David Shirk with doting, starry-eyed exuberance, Greg clearly loves his wife, but Sylvia is all he can talk about.
Kate gets the short end of the stick. She wasn’t consulted and doesn’t want a dog, who’s clearly disrupting her life. She’s jealous of the attention her husband is lavishing on another female, even if it is a four-legged one.
As usual for Gurney, the characters are upper-middle class, with society friends and symphony subscriptions. Their children are off to college, and Kate in particular is very career-driven. (“It’s a phase women are going through these days,” Greg tells Sylvia in one of several gender references that would have seemed dated even when the play came out 18 years ago.) A fellow dog owner in the park who otherwise seems like a regular dude (if a bit gossipy) cites “Ethan Frome” as if it’s something everybody knows, and even the dog references lesser-known moments from “The Odyssey.”
Tim Green does triple duty as the chatty guy in the dog park, a posh society dame with a singsong falsetto, and a therapist with a booming broadcaster’s voice who’s allegedly androgynous but reads as male until the dialogue calls it into question. These roles are broadly entertaining and serve as needed reminders that Kate’s not the only one who thinks Greg’s devotion to his dog may be a problem.
Director Kalli Jonsson gives the play a bare-bones, solid staging. Calvin Jung’s set is minimal — a couch, a recliner, a grassy carpet and a screen with backgrounds projected onto it — and Richard Ciccarone’s sound design incorporates 1950s jazz, cocktail music, even a bit of Bloodhound Gang.
Like Gurney’s “Love Letters,” “Sylvia” has a mawkish ending that ties things up far too neatly. But if nothing else it’s worth checking out for how aptly and humorously it captures the canine personality and interior world. Marital drama aside, that part should delight any dog owner.