Seven Days, October 23-30, 2002
Doggy Style
By Paula Routly
Staff Writer

Extramarital affairs, child rearing, even dirty dishes come between couples. But in the Vermont Stage production of Sylvia, the bone of contention is a dog. A.R. Gurney's comedy captures a ruff patch in a 22-year marriage while it stretches the definition of going astray.

Stephen Bradbury plays Greg -- an upscale, Manhattan-dwelling Willy Loman in search of meaning in middle age. He finds it panting in the park. Sylvia offers him mystery, purpose and unconditional love -- "a new leash on life," as the promo materials pun, at a time when other men opt for a fast car or a personal trainer.

The humorous hook is that the dog walks, talks and schemes like a human -- everything about Greg's relationship with his new "best friend" suggests it is illicit. For the first few minutes of the minimally staged play, it looks like Sylvia, acted with exuberance by Kathryn Blume, is actually a young girl.

She might as well be, judging from the reaction of Greg's workaholic wife. Betsy Jessie portrays quick-witted Kate with a preppy chill. The older woman immediately resents Sylvia as an obstacle to her own mid-life plan -- she teaches Shakespeare in an urban high school, and her career is taking off. Soon enough, she sees the dog as a threat to her marriage.

The two females spend most of the first act circling around each other, but in the last scene the fur starts to fly. "You're nothing but a male menopausal moment," Kate screams at Sylvia. But the dog has the upper paw. "He thinks I shit ice cream," the bitch retorts, gloating.

Gurney uses the canine construct to introduce two people who, despite sharing a life and children together, appear to be moving in different directions. It's a clever device. Kate's resistance to Sylvia points out all the ways in which she fails to understand her husband's growing need to "connect with living." His devotion to his dog quickly escalates to wifely neglect. His long nighttime walks with Sylvia appear to be leading him away from Kate.

With a light touch, Gurney manages to acknowledge the bond that can develop between species while at the same time making delightful fun of it. Blume is at her best when trying to intimidate a cat under a car. "Hey, hey, hey," she barks at the imaginary feline, then launches into an aggressive "fuck you, kitty" tirade that leaves her master breathless. "You want instinct, you got instinct," she tells Greg with street-talk bravado. "Here comes that Corgi. Should I sidle up to him or just ignore him?"

"Surprise me, Sylvia," he says, admiringly. Alan Alda-esque, he is at once searching and lost.

The best comic moments in the show belong to John Alexander, who single-handedly plays the three other characters. As Tom, he's the post-traumatic, animal-obsessed buddy who tries to warn Greg about the dangers of dog ownership while the two watch their pups in the park. The men bond further when Tom's Bowser deflowers Sylvia. After the deed is done, Tom lights up a cigarette. His motto: "Play Now, Spay Later."

Alexander also plays Kate's friend from Vassar -- in drag -- and nails the jaw-clenching high-society matron. Phyllis gets an earful from Kate about Sylvia, and then has her own hilarious crotch-sniffing encounter with the dog. Alexander is also effective, but harder to understand, as the androgynous shrink who introduces Greg to the psychological concept of "projection."

Ultimately, though, Sylvia is more about dog people than the dynamics of a troubled marriage. The play could easily go deeper in the second act, but it stays fluffy from start to finish. Even a couples' therapy session with Greg and Kate fails to dig up any relationship history. If animal obsession is a symptom of something lurking in the shadows of the marriage, we never learn about it. Although Kate offers occasional Shakespearean snippets as comments on the action, the are, alas, only a tease.

That weakness in the play makes the interaction between Greg and Kate awkward at times. No soul-searching dialogue between them prepares you for Greg's difficult decision regarding Sylvia. For the same reason, Kate's final epiphany comes across as somewhat sudden and farfetched. Gurney doesn't develop his characters any more than the plot requires -- all three main personages are equally sympathetic and annoying.

Vermont Stage does a good job mounting this witty, smart and provocative play. You can read between the lines all the way to the post-show coffee stop. But it might not have enough teeth to warrant a permanent place in Kate's curriculum. In the end, Sylvia's got plenty of bark but not enough bite.