There are some great pop-culture rivalries that can’t be resolved. Coke vs. Pepsi, Cowboys vs. Redskins, Apple vs. Samsung, Sega Genesis vs. Super Nintendo… the list goes on and on. But cat people and dog people? That’s one that can tear a family apart.
Or maybe it’s the divide between true dog-lovers and everyone else. It’s hard to tell.
Either way, you know the type. It isn’t just that someone has a dog. It’s that to them, the dog is a member of the family. They put pictures on the mantle. They believe that dogs are meant to eat at the dining-room table and ride shotgun in the car. They believe dogs should be allowed to vote in the Presidential elections and get a jury of their peers for biting a mailman.
You get the picture.
In Sylvia by playwright A.R. Gurney, that dynamic is front and center. Here’s the rundown. Greg (Phil Bufithis), a presumably middle-aged professional, is stumbling through the throes of a midlife crisis. For the moment he’s finding solace, we discover, in the park while taking unauthorized absences from work. While on one of his truant escapades Greg is approached by a dog named Sylvia (Sherry Berg), and finding no owner in sight he decides to take her in.
Obsession with Sylvia quickly sets in.
His wife Kate (Gayle Nichols-Grimes), however, is less than enthused about Sylvia. We learn that she’s a lifelong caretaker of their children, having put her work on hold until the kids went off to college. Now that they’re out of the house, she’s on track to build a career as a teacher in the inner-city, and the dog is a distraction from all her best-laid plans.
Sylvia, in this case, is no ordinary dog. She talks, flirts, dances and pouts, a fully anthropomorphic creature with feelings and emotions that don’t always bring harmony to the house. She’s not a talking dog, mind you, but she’s conversant with her masters, and that drives the majority of the dialogue throughout the play.
From there it’s pretty much two competing subplots from beginning to end – a catfight (pun intended) between dog and wife, and the externalized struggles of Greg vs. himself.
NextStop Theater Company puts forward a professional production in the capable hands of Director Doug Wilder. The set, the lighting, the direction… all great. There’s nothing but good work happening here, and credit is deserved all around.
The same can be said for much of the cast. Sherry Berg is fully committed to the role of Sylvia, spending as much of the play on hands and knees as on her feet. She’s expressionistic and has tremendous timing, whether she’s being chased off the couch or chasing an object of her affection at the dog park.
I’ve written about Berg before. She’s a big presence with big energy, unafraid of outlandish and ridiculous performances, and Sylvia is no exception.
Berg casts a big shadow, but it’s not the only good work happening. Phil Bufithis has a subdued, aw-shucks quality that’s a great fit, and Christopher Herring clearly enjoys crossing dress in the roles of Tom, Phyllis and Leslie. Virtually all of the humor that doesn’t come through Berg comes through him. Unfortunately, for me, it wasn’t enough.
First, the way Sylvia looks at relationships between men and women is a little cringe-worthy. Canines aside, the women in Sylvia are petty, mean-spirited and hysterical, while the men are free-spirited and mirthful. If that weren’t enough, Sylvia and Kate spend the play at one another’s throats trying to win Greg’s attention. When a détente is struck, it’s done with Kate deciding to forgo her career ambitions to meet the needs of her husband.
In one particular scene, Kate even laments that Greg is obsessed with a dog, rather than having an affair, because “any wife worth her salt can deal with [an affair].”
Closes November 16, 2014
NextStop Theatre Company at
Industrial Strength Theatre
269 Sunset Business Park
2 hours with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
The fact is, whether you like dogs or not, a dog jumping on the couch isn’t cause to hit the bottle and fall into hysterics.
These moments just don’t work, and the result is humor that feels a little dated. It’s a bit like catching a Frasier rerun at 3:30 in the afternoon. Not bad, but not exactly modern and edgy, either.
All said, it’s just not clear why this play deserves another bite at the proverbial chew toy, so I was ready to throw this one to the dogs. But a packed house on opening night laughed again and again and again, and I can tell you from experience that NextStop knows how to bring the funny.
Maybe I’m just a cat-person. If Sylvia is for you, this production will leave you wanting for nothing.
Sylvia by A.R. Gurney . Directed by Doug Wilder . Featuring Sherry Berg as Sylvia, Phil Bufithis as Greg, Gayle Grimes as Kate and Christopher Herring as Leslie. Scenic designer: Ruthmarie Tenerio . Costume designer: Kristina Martin . Lighting design: Annmarie Castrigno . Sound design: Stan Harris . Props design: Sierra Banack . Stage manager: Cris Ruthenberg-Marshall . Produced by NextStop Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jon Boughtin.
Closes Nov 16