In Gurney’s Sylvia we begin with a middle-age couple, Greg
(J. Brazill) and Kate (Binaifer Dabu), self-described empty-nesters who
have moved to Manhattan after 22 years of marriage. Both are restless,
but Kate, a high school English teacher, wants to recharge her career
and has applied for fellowships to study abroad. Greg also has a job
but is casting about for new directions.
Navroz Dabu’s stylish set reminds us of prominent city landmarks,
including that art deco treasure, the Chrysler Building, with room for
exploration at stage left, like the greenery of Central Park. It is
there that Greg finds a mixed-breed dog, part Labrador and part poodle,
who follows him home. The tag on the dog’s neck reads “Sylvia,” and
she’s played by an attractive young woman, Heather J. Roach, whose
blonde hair is tied in puppy dog tails.
Grateful to be taken in, Sylvia overflows with exuberant affection,
and reacts with ecstatic barks and tongue wags to the smallest favors.
Not quite housebroken to live indoors, Sylvia bounds across the room
and romps on the couch, much to Kate’s scowling displeasure. In playing
Sylvia, Roach has some protection on her knees as well as what looks
like fur on her cuffs, as well as a tag around her neck. All of this
puts off Kate, who would like to kick the dog out.
But Greg has already bonded with Sylvia, spending more time with her
than with his job. Going on long walks, they appear to discuss life and
astronomy, subjects Greg cannot sustain with Kate. Not surprisingly,
Kate fears that Greg’s growing obsession with Sylvia is a threat to
their marriage. It’s as if Sylvia were, um, another woman.
Adultery has been a big theme in successful Gurney plays, such as The Dining Room. His most-often performed work, the two-hander Love Letters,
chronicles an adulterous affair between people of equal status that
runs several decades. More reckless middle-age men have craved the
smiling adoration of younger women of far lower status, for which the
pre-discovery Bill and Monica are the most recent paradigm. There is
scarcely a reader who does not already know this, which is why the
audience always knows that Sylvia both is and is not a beautiful woman.
Just as a man with a loving dog is much like having a mistress, and
having a devoted mistress is also like having a cocker spaniel, minus
some important services.
Strange to say, this simple device—is it a girl or a
pooch?—continues to deliver laughs, or at least smirks, for more than
two hours and doesn’t wear thin. When Sylvia goes into heat and shouts
street expletives about her craving for hookups, we can’t forget that
the comely Ms. Roach is delivering them. Similarly, querulous Kate’s
complaints that Sylvia is coming between her and her husband become
bitterly comic because we know that, well, she’s right, but she can’t
do much about it.
Three minor characters comment on Greg’s relationship with Sylvia.
Tom, a baseball-capped blue collar regular guy with his own dog
supports Greg, but recommends surgery to prevent unwanted pups.
Phyllis, Kate’s prissy friend, is repulsed by what she sees. But highly
androgynous Leslie, a marriage counselor, flies into a rage, telling
Kate to get a gun and plug Sylvia between the eyes. All three are
created by the same performer, Gerrit Vander Werff Jr., Gurney’s
pointed reminder that our sexual preferences determine how we see the
In his program notes, director Dustin Czarny explains that he
founded Not Another Theater Company because he wanted to produce plays
like Sylvia and, indeed, especially Sylvia. One reason he gives is that he is a dog-lover. And while Sylvia
has not exactly been neglected on local boards, it allows several
players to show their stuff. Gurney has been one of America’s more
popular playwrights, but his works never migrate to the screen because
of what he demands from live performers. In this case they are all Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) nominees and winners.
The title role is a feast for Heather J. Roach, who maximizes some
of her best opportunities, such as the exhaustion from pleasure after
mating with Bowser in the park. More affecting, though ironic, is her
wincing, bowl-legged gait after the spaying. Also showy are Vander
Werff’s three contrasting characters. Who knew that his legs, when
shaved, would come out so shapely?
As the married couple, both Binaifer Dabu and J. Brazill are cast
against type. One of the most inventive local players, Dabu can usually
plumb the Hedda Gabler lying beneath the slightest characters, but here
she’s mostly a comic foil. Her best scenes are the snappish dialogues
with Greg. Brazill, whose deserved SALT nomination arose from his
McMurphy in Appleseed Productions’ One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,
usually brings coiled energy to his performances. This makes his
disaffected bourgeois Greg less plausible (“Farmers do not exist. Read The New Republic!”), but injects heat into his devotion to Sylvia.
Sylvia has been marketed as a farce, as was Not Another Theater Company’s first production, Run for Your Wife.
This is misleading, even if Dramatist Publisher, the rights holder,
encourages it. There’s no slapstick and there are no slamming doors.
Laughter is plentiful, but mostly for what we pretend we do not see.
This production runs through Saturday, May 1. See Times Table for information.