Friday, January 29, 2010

Opening-night review of *Sylvia*

At the Civic’s Studio Theater through Feb. 21

You’ll be reminded of some simple truths and learn a few lessons during director Brooke Kiener’s production of A.R. Gurney’s romantic-doggy-triangle of a love-comedy, Sylvia. Sharing and self-sacrifice are important, for instance. Naysayers are no fun, but fun-lovers are lots of … fun, for a couple of others.
In a good but not-as-good-as-it-could-be production, pacing and tonal shifts are a problem. But the dog lovers’ fantasy -- a show with an actress playing a talking dog -- creates a lot of infectious energy, love and fun. There’s even some marital counseling and lessons in self-determination along the way.
Sylvia is a lovable mutt of a play, a mix of comedy and seriousness -- something to return to for reassurance and reminders.
And it’s a script that’s being served here by two exceptionally good performances — by Beth Carey as the dog and by Bill Forant as Greg, the man who finds Sylvia wandering one day in Central Park.
When called upon, Carey scurries and scampers and sniffs as Sylvia -- leaping into arms, hopping up and down, hugging Greg’s knees, nearly dry-humping a house guest. (She feels bad about that. She went overboard. Her features darken, she bows her head.)
Carey’s adoring eyes laser in on the man who saved her life; she kneels on command, but only resentfully. Her performance ranges from insecurity to mysteriousness, from sexy to resentful, from horny to child-like. Carey has a tomboy vocal quality, full of angry rumbles, that makes the show’s funniest sequence — Sylvia’s getting livid at the sight of a filthy stinkin’ cat — even funnier. For the comedy, Carey has clearly done her doggy homework; for the serious advice scenes, she relies on her own personal assertiveness. It‘s a performance with many facets, and it’s fun to watch. (Full disclosure: Carey formerly worked at The Inlander as a sales rep.)

In his Civic debut, Forant displayed the kind of puppy-dog, boyish energy and wonderment that you want to see in a guy who’s having a midlife crisis and just wants to get back to natural basics. He has a kind of hemming-and-hawing Ray Romano quality -- the self-deprecating drawl, the disbelief injected into conversational pauses and restarts.
Forant allowed the sentiment of the final scene to overwhelm him for a moment -- but he also carefully calibrated how to build up the sadness in the scene when Greg is forced to decide between his dog and his wife: with hunched back, eyes glistening, voice breaking, he presented a strong contrast to his earlier, puppyish, new-dog-owner self.

As Kate — Greg’s wife, who’s starting a new career and doesn’t really have time to have a dog running underfoot — Anne Lillian Mitchell has a thankless killjoy of a role. (You can just feel viewers’ sense of fun and anticipation when man and are running around and learning new tricks — and then The Voice of No enters the room.) But Mitchell breaks through the harridan’s shell and shows us a rounded character during at least two sequences, both involving the possibility of Sylvia’s departure or demise. Kate strides purposefully through this serio-comedy, intent on pursuing her academic dreams; but Mitchell, at times, softens the harsh exterior nicely.
Jerry Sciarrio contributes three small roles, and while his macho New Yorker and sexually ambiguous marriage counselor were well observed, he didn’t create much vocal differentiation at all for his Freudian-slipping socialite. Particularly on entrances and exits, however, Sciarrio shares a lot of well-observed characterizing details about the three figures he portrays. And watch for how much comedy Sciarrio extracts from such little things as a well-timed purse snap and a grimacing refusal to drink a glass of water.

From a directing standpoint, too many scene-changes dawdled; the dialogue often had dead spots. Switches from comic to serious need to be more seamless — and the energy of the physical comedy scenes, which are quite good, could afford to show up in the more lecture-like episodes. Greg trying to figure out the meaning of life, Kate planning for her new career — the onstage dog should yawn (and does), but we shouldn’t: Attack those with more intensity, and both the pace and joie de vivre will pick up. In addition, the final scene, full of nostalgia, sadness, and gratitude for the love of a dog, was handled with a bit too much back-slappy self-congratulation: The audience needs time to register all that’s just happened.
In at least one thrust-stage scene, director Kiener kept husband and wife rooted to the couch long enough for some playgoers to become over-familiar with the backs of heads. But she also directs Sylvia’s rambunctious scenes with verve, and she gets mileage out of a bit when Greg expresses his preference for manufacturing over trading currencies, for things over abstractions, and reaches out to touch someone who, for him, is as real as it gets: Sylvia.

Set and lighting designer Peter Hardie has created a lovely NYC skyline as backdrop for the Cole Porter love-longing of “Every Time We Say Goodbye.”
I don’t want to say goodbye to my memories of Gurney’s script any more than I ever want to say goodbye to my own dogs.

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