As anyone who has relied on canine companionship to get through a difficult time can attest, a faithful dog more than deserves the moniker "man's best friend." Few species on Earth offer such undying devotion, unconditional love, reliable warmth, cuddly coats to snuggle up to, and homing instincts for returning Frisbees -- all for the price of a little hamburger and a Milk-Bone. Yet, every argument for dog ownership has an equally persuasive flip side: fur everywhere, dog breath on your face in the morning, walks in all kinds of weather, poop to be scooped, and lodgings to be arranged for the hound if you ever want to get out of town for more than ten minutes.
In A. R Gurney's 1995 comedy Sylvia, a middle-age upper-class woman named Kate subscribes to the latter opinion, considering one dog in particular more foe than friend. Her husband Greg, disillusioned with his job and feeling distant from his wife, finds a stray in Central Park and brings the pugnacious mutt home. Not only does Sylvia (the tag around her neck gives her name) lounge on the furniture, shed long hair, pee on the floor, chew on shoes, drink from the toilet, and insist on sleeping under the covers with the couple, she also claims an undue amount of Greg's attention. Kate insists that the dog leave; her husband refuses to give her up. Grudgingly, over time, Kate not only comes to tolerate the creature but, in her own way, loses her heart to Sylvia.
Sitting through the show's local debut at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton, I found myself journeying along a path of acceptance similar to Kate's. Although the play attempts to chronicle a marriage in crisis, Sylvia's evocation of marital trouble feels slight. And the play's minor characters seem contrived, devised merely to convey or listen to anecdotes about pets. But Sylvia herself -- written by Gurney to be played by a person -- is such a resplendent creation that I put my critical mind on hold and surrendered to her fabulousness. I was won over, in no small part, by actor Kim Cozort's larger-than-life performance as the pooch. Strutting around the stage on two legs most of the time and speaking her often crude mind to the human characters, who understand her and speak back, Cozort's Sylvia is vulgar, manipulative, and utterly lovable. The portrayal will convert even the most hard-hearted to the pleasures of owning a dog.
Playwright Gurney has been taking the temperature of American WASP life in his wistful, gently mocking comedies since the Fifties. His best-known works unfold within a single setting or hinge on a singular device. The Middle Ages (1977), which traces the lives of wealthy brothers and one of their wives, takes place in the trophy room of a men's club. The Dining Room (1982), a montage of related vignettes about family members and servants in an upper-class household, is set in a dining room. Love Letters (1988) explores the relationship between a blue-blood man and woman, from childhood through death, entirely through letters. With equal amounts of compassion and parody, these and other Gurney plays examine how members of the upper crust cling to class-bound rituals while sacrificing emotional connection.
In Sylvia, Kate (Cynthia Caquelin) and Greg (Peter Haig) are also well-to-do WASPs, coasting through a comfortable but lackluster 22-year marriage. They recently abandoned the suburbs for an apartment in New York, and Kate relishes her new profession as a teacher after years of homemaking. In contrast, Greg, uninspired by his decades-old corporate career, has been skipping work to hang out in the park. Enter a sensual dog to serve as the conceit around which Gurney structures the play: Sylvia is a four-legged reminder of the lost spontaneity in Greg and Kate's relationship. She also seems to be Gurney's alter ego. In play after play he creates frustrated, well-bred characters who, by virtue of their socialization, remain forever polite to each other. The playwright breaks out with the character of Sylvia; through her, he locates a seemingly long-suppressed, streetwise, less-than-genteel, and wildly refreshing voice.
Director Kenneth Kay brings the same joy to his direction of Cozort (his off-stage wife) that Gurney brings to his conjuring of Sylvia through words. And Kay deftly combines Gurney's written wit with physical comedy in scene after clever scene. The second act opens with an especially memorable depiction of Sylvia in heat that, as rendered by Cozort, Haig, and Stephen G. Anthony as Greg's friend Tom, comically exposes the men's sexism and machismo. (Anthony has been performing at the Pope Theatre in Manalapan; for Miami audiences who rarely get that far north, this production affords a chance to see this fine actor's work closer to home. Here Anthony also portrays a gay therapist and, dressed in mercifully understated drag, an alcoholic society matron.)
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Sylvia succeeds both as a love poem to a beguiling pet and as a paean to dog ownership. It falters, however, in its attempts to delineate the difficulties in a long-term marriage. Part of the problem lies in the choices made by Kay and his actors. The director never elicits anything resembling passion, either overt or buried, between Haig and Caquelin. And although these accomplished actors deliver assured performances as individual characters, they remain relentlessly cheerful with each other as husband and wife, even during their most tense confrontations. Because their interactions lack an edge, nothing appears to be at stake, and the marriage seems hardly worth saving.
Despite a facile resolution of the play's central conflict, Sylvia saves the day in the end. During the last scene, with Cozort as Sylvia off-stage, Greg regales the crowd with a wallet-size picture of her; the picture, simultaneously projected as a slide for the audience to see, is of a real dog. Cozort has imbued the scamp with so much personality throughout the evening that the actual animal seems to jump out and greet us like an old friend.
In Sylvia, Gurney handles relationships between people with too light a touch. Yet he imagines the inner life of a dog with enough richness to make up for his less-than-remarkable human characters. And in Caldwell's production, Kim Cozort gets under the skin of this vivid creature in a deliciously engaging star turn that warrants a trip to Boca Raton.
Sylvia. Written by A.R. Gurney; directed by Kenneth Kay; with Kim Cozort, Peter Haig, Cynthia Caquelin, and Stephen G. Anthony. Through September 1. For information, call 561-241-7432 or see "Calendar Listings.