Theater review: Sylvia at Flat Rock Playhouse
The title character of Sylvia is a dog, played by a woman, actress Keri Safran. And just to get some of the #MeToo concerns out of the way: No leash is ever attached to her collar, and she only does tricks with great reluctance. (More on that later.)
Sylvia is a presumed stray adopted by Greg (Michael MacCauley), who’s having a midlife crisis, much to the chagrin of Greg’s wife Kate (Leslie Marie Collins). The resulting comedy, written by A.R. Gurney (Love Letters) in 1995, traces the love-hate triangle among the three, which threatens to wreck Greg’s and Kate’s marriage.
It’s a dog-lover’s dream, as Safran embodies all those canine behaviors that alternately endear and exasperate. She also talks, carrying on conversations with her humans, making literal all those exchanges every animal’s companion has imagined.
Despite the addition of plot lines involving Greg’s and Kate’s careers, there’s not quite enough actual story to fill a two-hour show (including intermission). But the play is kept buoyant by its performances, led by Safran’s endlessly entertaining take on a dog’s-eye view of the world. Under the direction of Michael Kostroff, Safran manages a fine balancing act between evoking (not quite imitating) canine mannerisms — her nervous “sit” is especially amusing — and conjuring heartfelt emotions. The play is fun and funny whenever she’s onstage.
More pure comedy is provided by fourth cast member Preston Dyar, playing a trilogy of over-the-top supporting characters: the macho guy in the park whose unneutered hound is his surrogate stud, a gender-nonconforming marriage counselor, and, my favorite, an uptight rich woman whom Sylvia terrorizes with affection.
The always reliable MacCauley leans into the self-deluding Greg to tender effect, and Collins elicits sympathy as the beleaguered Kate. They’re burdened somewhat by the play’s rote character development but hit all their comic moments with perfect timing and just the right dose of absurdity.
Of course, comedy, not character, is the point here, and Sylvia delivers the laughs. As Kostroff writes in his director’s note in the program, “I have searched and searched for the hidden meanings in Sylvia … and here’s what I’ve come up with: Nothing. There are no hidden meanings in Sylvia. It is simply a sweet play about how great dogs are.”
That it is. Those with no great affection for canine quirks and anyone for whom the woman-as-dog gimmick is just too demeaning might not appreciate the proceedings, but those willing to go with the flow are in for an amusing and satisfying time at the theater.
The final word here we’ll give to playwright Gurney himself, from a 1997 interview: “Theaters refused [to produce Sylvia] on the grounds that it equated a dog with a woman, and to ask a woman to play a dog was not just misogynist, but blatantly sexist. … Obviously, I didn't see it that way, and I still don't.”
See the play. Discuss after, over drinks. Maybe with your pooch at your side.
Sylvia runs through April 20, with shows at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Flat Rock Playhouse in Flat Rock. For details and tickets, visit flatrockplayhouse.org.