Excuse the pun, but Boca Raton Theater Guild is barking up the right tree with its current production of A.R. Gurney's play Sylvia at the Willow Theatre.
The story of a pooch named Sylvia that comes between a 22 year marriage has been a perennial crowd pleaser since it opened off Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club starring Sarah Jessica Parker as the saucy stray that latches on to a commodities trader named Greg. He takes her home, and while she fills a midlife void for her new owner, his wife is less than tickled. Cathy Rigby took on the role for a production in Los Angeles in 2007 that met with mixed reviews.
In Gurney's play, the pooch (dialogue tells the audience she's part Labrador, part poodle) is no ordinary four-legged creature — Sylvia walks like a human, talks like a human and even barks like a human: "Hey! Hey! Hey!," she says whenever someone approaches the door.
There are no doggie outfits for Sylvia; just costume changes that suggest different phases of this slice of life: tattered and disheveled when at the start, wearing a bit of bling after her visit to the groomer for her French poodle phase, and dressed to the nines for an evening with her owner.
Gurney takes this anthropomorphism one step further by positioning Sylvia as the "other woman" that threatens Greg and Kate's marriage, after the two have just entered their empty nester phase. "Give a dog a woman's name and you start to treat her like one," Kate cautions. She calls the dog Saliva.
Perhaps the most crucial element in this play to ensure its success is that the actress playing the role of Sylvia must relinquish all self consciousness. Sylvia needs to be entirely canine when she flops on a couch, scratches fleas, humps a lamppost while in heat, goes nose first for a good crotch, and spouts non ladylike obscenities at a cat, yet human when she is fearful of being sent away from the home she yearns to make her own.
Although Laggy dedicates her performance in the Playbill to her three cats, the actress has no fear when she unleashes her inner canine. With her shaggy hair and natural physicality, she is wonderfully fun and utterly convincing as the street-smart Sylvia. Her Labradoodle is innocent and sincere without being overly cute, cuddly or caricaturized.
The dog's devoted owner, Greg, is played by Keith Garsson, who has the difficult task of making sure the man-dog romance stays balanced so that his character is able to elicit the right amount of sympathy. Garsson is pure puppy dog himself, and audiences will feel for the menopausal male, who has grown disillusioned with his job and family life, and finds an unconditional love in Sylvia. One of Garsson's most poignant moments as Greg is when he confides to Sylvia that he is seeing New York nights in a whole different light during their evening walks. It is a very real and touching moment.
Patti Gardner as Kate doesn't seem to dig as deep for her as role the workaholic wife who teaches English to inner-city students and is looking forward to a new chapter in her life. Gardner's Kate comes off as a one-note nag rather than a woman who feels that the pesky pooch could threaten her plans for a future alone with her husband. Also, Gurney has given the Shakespeare-loving Kate some wonderful lines from The Bard that the character speaks as asides at the close of some scenes. "If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as improbable fiction," Kate says. "Twelfth Night, Act III, Scene 4," the academic informs. Gardner delivers the line, as she does all of the Shakespeare asides, as a throwaway not mining the depth of the words, which would have added multi-layers to a character who, in this portrayal, comes off as cold and one dimensional.
Gurney also adds another subtle pitch to Shakespeare as the remaining characters in the play, Tom, a dog owner who Greg meets at the park; Phyllis, the couple's socialite friend, and Leslie, a therapist the couple seeks for counseling, are all played by the same actor. Mario Betto is a bit too soft spoken (some of the older audience members spoke aloud that they could not hear him), yet he exudes a quirky likeability as Tom, but as Phyllis he's in his element. Betto channels his alter ego Miss Finesse, a character the actor/playwright created who is self-described as "South Florida's larger than life actress, writer, singer and celebrity interviewer." Director Genie Croft sets up an extremely funny sight gag when she puts Gardner and a giant Betto in heels side by side on the stage. The actor as the androgynous Leslie is equally amusing in a funny patient-therapist scene written for laughs by Gurney, but sent over the top by Betto's comic performance.
Croft's direction is skillful as she aims to keep the play light, yet brings out much of its poignancy. Sean McClelland's two-tiered stage design allows for one set to serve as both the couple's apartment and as an outdoor park. Alberto Arroyo's costumes, especially the wonderfully creative looks that reflect Sylvia's transitions, act as a visual companion to the story.
Boca Raton Theater Guild's Sylvia is a doggone wonderfully witty, well crafted entertaining night at the theater.
Sylvia at Boca Raton Theater Guild, Willow Theater at Sugar Sand Park, 300 S. Military Trail, Boca Raton, through Oct. 14. 561-347-3948 or www.brtg.org.