Sylvia

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Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

By Philip Pearce

A.R. GURNEY is one of my favorite American playwrights. He writes about the decline and fall of the kind of upper middle class, semi-highbrow suburban society I grew up in. The fact that I’m also a lifelong animal lover and that Gurney’s best-loved comedy is about a man who’s in love with his dog only compounds my bias.

The play is Sylvia, now enjoying a delightful revival at Jewel Theatre in Santa Cruz, with the same actors who performed it with major success eight years ago. The multi-talented Diana Torres Koss directs with a fast, hard-hitting comic approach that often spills over into farce. Since it’s a script full of ideas (marriage, gender, priorities) as well as laughs, other versions I’ve seen and liked had a slower and more reflective pace. But looking back on Friday’s opening night at the Colligan, I think Torres Koss and her gifted cast of four have probably got it right.

Because it is farce, and farce, from Molière to Neil Simon, is about non-stop obsession—with money if you’re Harpagon, with upward-mobility if you’re Malvolio. Gurney’s retiree hero Greg is a man with a one-track commitment to the lab/poodle stray named Sylvia he’s rescued from the park and brings home to his startled wife. Played with a lot of zest by the spirited Shaun Carroll, Greg is a likable guy whose energy level mounts higher and higher as his ability to control his obsession with Sylvia grows weaker and weaker.

In the title role, Julie James is wonderful as a character who, like Elwood Dowd’s six-foot rabbit Harvey, has to be one of the animal superstars of the American theater. Unlike Harvey, Sylvia is anything but an invisible mental figment. She’s a rarin‘-to-go explosion of canine actuality. Bursting with adoration for Greg, she’ll beg, borrow or steal any opportunity to jump onto his life and activities. It’s a performance built around close study of the way a dog explores new territory, negotiates for human approval and reacts to the instant attractions of food, sex and aggression. But James uses these attributes to create an artful suggestion not a slavish imitation of canine behavior. Her Sylvia embodies a dog’s drives and attitudes expressed in a human vocabulary.

That’s all very well with Sylvia and the besotted Greg but not with his logical, organized and tidy wife. Played with bright comic assurance by Diahanna Davidson, Kate likes dogs well enough, but only “when they belong to other people.” From the moment Sylvia checks in, Kate knows this strong-minded canine threatens her peace of mind, her Manhattan furniture and the stability of her marriage. It turns into the eternal triangle with a bizarre inter-species twist.

Kate and some other local characters confront Greg with his obsession. The others include a wiseacre dog-owning hippy named Tom, a startled college friend named Phyllis—from Kate’s years at Vassar—and a loony, gender-bending therapist named Leslie. Greg’s and Kate’s and Sylvia’s encounters with these helpful outsiders are among the funniest moments of this continually entertaining production. All three roles—Tom, Phyllis and Leslie—are played with a hilarious over-the-top comic precision that won J.T. Holstrom, opening night ovations every time he left the stage.

The ending is more fairy tale than case history, but it’s that kind of play and that kind of production. See it if you possibly can, now through May 28th.