If you’re a dog lover—and if you’re not, perhaps you just haven’t found the right dog yet—there’s a good chance A. R. Gurney’s Sylvia will speak to you. The character Sylvia, an energetic lab-poodle mix, will also speak to you, literally, as the pooch in this play is a played by a woman who communicates with the audience and the characters in plain English. The premise has a hokey vibe undoubtedly, but Gurney’s play is a smart, unusual piece of work that’s much more than it appears on its face.
Now on stage at Seattle Repertory Theatre through Dec. 11, Sylvia is directed by Seattle theater vet R. Hamilton Wright, who starred in the show 15 years ago when the Rep first staged it. His direction underlines the slightly off-kilter energy of the play and its alternating humorous and philosophical natures. One might expect a play ostensibly about pet ownership to possess its fair (or more than fair) share of pathos, but Sylvia rarely heads that direction.
Greg (Alban Dennis) and Kate (Mari Nelson) are a pair of new empty-nesters who have returned to living in the city after a long stint in the suburbs. She’s a successful academic; he’s a dissatisfied paper-pusher. While Kate is eager to explore a new chapter of her life, Greg is obsessed with looking back and examining what he’s done with his.
As the play opens, we see the excited Sylvia (Linda K. Morris) burst through the doors of the couple’s Manhattan apartment. Quickly it becomes apparent that this is a dog, even though there’s no dog costume—not even a sewed-on tail or a pointy-ear headband. The resulting effect isn’t so much Brechtian distancing as it is a perspective-altering look at the relational significance man has with canine—and vice versa.
Greg found Sylvia as a stray in the park and he announces his plans to keep her to a resistant Kate, who insists that they’re over the dog phase of their life, and means it. What ensues is an increasing love affair between Greg and Sylvia (surprisingly, it never tips into creepy territory) and a mounting sense of disdain between Kate and Sylvia that becomes inflamed into all-out hatred.
Kate’s unwavering opposition to the dog and everything she represents creates a bit of a nerve-fraying tenor, but Nelson is able to make her character somewhat sympathetic, even if she’s essentially the de facto villain here. Dennis has an amiable, introspective charm as Greg, and his fawning over the dog manages to be both winning and pathetic in alternating measures. Darragh Kennan shows up to play three supporting roles—one male, one female, one ambiguous—that push Sylvia into its broadest comedic territory, but he does a nice job of creating distinct personalities for each.
Of course, the show is truly an actor’s showcase for the part of Sylvia, and Morris’s boundless energy, expertly attenuated physicality, and intermittent profanity are never not delightful. One can easily imagine this role turning obnoxious fast, but she’s up to the task of toeing that line.
Sylvia is on stage at Seattle Rep Wednesdays through Sundays through Dec. 11. Tickets are available for purchase online.
Photo courtesy of Seattle Repertory Theatre.