Sylvia by A.R. Gurney, Directed by R. Hamilton Wright, November 11 December 11, 2011, Seattle REP.
I was listening to conversations at the theater before and after this play. Before the show, the guy behind me talking about Microsoft getting aced by Apple as an investment. On my left, my wife and her friend Patricia talking taxes, on the right a couple talking about a recent trip. That was before the show.
At intermission, and after the show, they were all telling dog stories. All of them. About their dogs, about friends with dogs, about memories of past dogs and about dogs last week. Because this is that type of play, a play that fires your own memories and ideas and everyone is a part of it. Even those of us who do not have dogs.
Sylvia is a four-actor play. Alban Dennis is Greg, who brings home a stay dog to his New York apartment. Mari Nelson is his wife, Kate, who has finally gotten the kids out of the house and has a plan for the rest of her life, one which doesn't include a dog. Darragh Kennan is everyone else (I'll explain the a bit later) who isn't a dog. And Linda K. Morris is the dog, Sylvia.
The play itself is a slender thing, little more than what I just presented, but it bounces along merrily, aided both by its stagecraft (furnishings sliding along a Magritte-shaded stage), and the effusive nature of the cast itself. Morris as Sylvia carries the bulk of the task, being incredibly dog-like, right down to a canine's mercurial temperament and lack of long-term memory. Actually, she's not playing the dog as much as the other characters' projection on the dog. We all anthropomorphize our pets, and part of Syvlvia's rattletrap nature is what her masters expect of her. But as dog or imposed representation of a dog, Morris bounces through the role.
Mari Nelson has a tougher road as the heavy, the Shakespeare-quoting wife who wants nothing to do with the dog. She doesn't have nearly so much to play with, and hers is the treacherous job of providing resistance (so as not to seem weak) without being mean. There a moments she seems to verge on full-fledged MacBethian cackle, but she redeems herself nicely. Interestingly, both Nelson and Morris were in Dancing at Lughnasa last season, along with two of actresses over in Circle Mirror Transformation. It appears that Dancing at Lughnasa is the Kevin Bacon play of actresses at the Rep.
I mentioned Darragh Kennan as everyone else. He shows up as a fellow "Dog-Guy" at the dog park, then transforms into a Lady Who Lunches, a malapropping friend of Kate's, upon whom Sylvia heaps embarrassment (and a cold, wet nose), and lastly as the ambiguously gendered psychiatrist brought in to deal with Greg's obsessiveness with his canine soulmate. He has the chance in the latter to go even broader than he does in the last, and should take it. Indeed, when dealing with a triangle, it is the supporting characters that can do the most work to convince the audience of the central figures sanity. These characters show there are crazier things than Greg and his dog.
Alban Dennis as Greg has a odd problem, in that I've seen and enjoyed the acting work of R. Hamilton Wright, who was the both the original Greg when the play first showed up as well as the director here. And as a result, I kept projecting Wright into the role. The end result makes Dennis' Alban seem too continually perky and mild in the part. Wright has the ability to work himself into a grounded, manic enthusiasm that the Greg portrayed here seems to lack.
The end result? Well, this is a holiday play, not that it's about a holiday, but it is a nice, comfortable piece of theater that doesn't put any great demands on the audience. It's the kind of play you can bring a theater-phobic relative to (particularly if that relative is a dog-person and can stand a cursing canine). I like the production and direction of Sylvia, but recognize the actors efforts better in CMT as being superior. But the writing is fairly innocuous in both plays, living in a very comfortable and innocuous space. An acting class versus a romantic triangle with a dog. Forced to choose, I'd go with Sylvia's writing, but only by a nose.
A cold, wet nose.
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