Huguenot Community Player’s “Sylvia” shows how man’s love for his dog can be taken the wrong way
I did not expect to leave Huguenot Community Players (HCP) Production of A.R. Gurney’s play Sylvia so conflicted.
A.R. Gurney is the acclaimed playwright of such plays as The Cocktail Hour, The Dining Room (produced by HCP last year) and the The Fourth Wall (produced by Firehouse Theatre in 2015).
HCP’s Sylvia is a very well presented piece of theatre. The ensemble is tight. It ought to be critic proof. It’s about man’s best friend, a lovable dog named Sylvia.
You go in knowing the play is about a man and his dog. You fully expect the dog to be played by a human.
So why was I so taken aback at the sight of the dog being played by a young woman? Maybe it because Gurney has her become the object of a middle aged man’s obsession. The first words out of her mouth are “I love you. You are God” (which as everyone knows is “dog” spelled backwards).
They hug, they snuggle, he calls her beautiful. He gets jealous when she’s in heat and mates with another dog. He spends more time with her than his wife.
The man’s name is Greg (Brian Martin). He says he found her abandoned in a park. It is not clear however, that she did not escape from her previous owner and sought this man out.
At home, Greg’s wife Kate (Martha Kelly) plays the villain, jealous and resentful of the new love in her husband’s life.
This play is a feminist’s nightmare.
The actress who plays Sylvia (Brandy Samberg) has a wonderful time suggesting the attributes of a dog. She also more than suggests the attributes of a female lover. She slinks, nuzzles, teases, is jealous and clingy.
When Greg takes Sylvia to the park one day he discovers that she is in heat (“I want to hump and bump” she bellows). A fellow dog owner Tom (Jim Dyk) has a masculine dog named Bowser. The dogs lock together with their owners watching from afar.
When it’s done, Tom says “I really want to smoke a cigarette.”
The blatant references to sexism, voyeurism, bestiality and misogyny are troubling to say the least.
Sylvia is well written. Gurney is known as the foremost dissector of patrician New England WASP culture. Here, he seems to have a case of the “cutes.”
Gurney has created an amusing and remarkably accurate idiom for translating Sylvia’s doggy language into human speech.
(“Hey-hey-hey-hey!” is his clever approximation of Sylvia’s bark.) Samberg does her considerable bit by finding realistic human actions suggestive of doggy behavior. Attaching herself to Greg’s leg and declaring her undying love and loyalty to her lord and master (“My aim in life is to please”), she challenges Kate to pull them apart.
Gurney also does his best to scientifically explain the phenomena of Greg’s attachment. He does so through Bower’s owner Tom who explains the theory of Biophilia. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems.
Tom theorizes that Greg, experiencing “empty nesting” in combination with a wife who is focusing on herself and her own career, leaves him open to fill the void with his dog. Tom, an elderly gentleman announces that he himself is on the way to Divorce Court.
Even given the charming wit, the play is pretty one dimensional.
The play’s only real pulse comes from the frisky performance of Samberg’s Sylvia. Whether tilting her head in a coy facsimile of shame when a puddle of pee is discovered in the living room, flying into a profanity-spewing rage at the sight of a cat or assuming a posture of abject defeat after being spayed, Samberg’s Sylvia is a witty comic turn. But a comic turn is all it is — not part of any truly compelling dramatic scenario.
The good news is that the performances are all solid. Many of these actors have been working with HCP for many years with Director Ann Davis to the point where they now easily gel as tight theatrical troupe.
Brian Martin has probably spent dozens of hours on the HCP stage and it shows. He has a natural ease playing Greg. He finds the nuances in the existential crisis Greg is experiencing. He is clueless and doesn’t realize the depth of his feeling for the dog or what it does to his marriage.
Kelly plays Kate in just the right, wry tone. Steadfast but patient, she holds her ground yet waits the “affair” out. Dog lovers might boo her immediate rejection of the lovable pooch, but she has put her life on hold, raised her children and now wants time for herself. A 15 year commitment to a dog is not in her plan. Yet Greg is immediately smitten and eternally dedicated. What is a wife to do?
Of the supporting players, Christy Mullins scores as socialite friend Phyllis. It’s pretty funny watching Sylvia with her head in Phyllis’ crotch.
Jim Dyk plays Tom. He is always fun to watch onstage. He has the spry, amusing older guy role down to a science.
Jeffery Fleming had some opening night jitters as the psychiatrist Leslie, but I loved his sparkly ascot and the absurd pretense that this large masculine figure could be confused for a woman.
Community theatre doesn’t get a pass for lack of technical production. It is proper that they be judged on the equipment they have. In that vein, Curt and Debbie Nellis’ set was well done, functional with clean lines. The HCP proudly sports some new lighting equipment and Chris Stepp’s design began to use it to good effect. Curt Nellis provided appropriate outside noises that were well executed.
However fashioned, this play is just another twist on the same old prickly triangle of a man, his wife and his mistress.
What makes the one-dimensional play even more troubling is its questionable sexual politics. While Greg eventually wakes up enough to make a sacrifice, it’s long-suffering, loving Kate who ultimately compromises and then undergoes a complete turnaround in the sappy final stretch.
To make matters worse, the natural conclusion is followed by an unnecessary coda that goes on to spell out the obvious, turning it into pure schmaltz. No one would blame even the most nonmilitant feminist from snarling both at self-absorbed Greg and his manipulative bitc – um – puppy.
Still, this is a tight knit company and they get plenty of laughs out of the script, no matter how you feel about it. While HCP’s facilities are rudimentary, this company has a dedicated ensemble led by the steady hand of Ann Davis.
No million dollar budget, no smoke and mirrors, just good theatre.
It is formulaic and not very dramatic, but it affords some good performances and touching moments.May 9, 2016
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