Right up there with Republicans vs. Democrats, smokers vs. non-smokers, and Shia vs. Sunni is the schism between dog lovers and non–dog lovers. Along that fault line, A.R. Gurney’s enjoyable comedy Sylvia unpacks both the humor and the cruelty within a marriage when a man in midlife crisis brings home an attractive female dog, forming a bond that excludes and insults his wife. “He thinks I shit ice cream,” brags Sylvia the dog (comely-cute Linda K. Morris) to Kate the human (angular beauty Mari Nelson), whose husband Greg (Alban Dennis) has adopted Sylvia without marital consent.
There’s a clear mistress/nymphette vibe to Sylvia; yet the fact that she’s merely a dog makes Kate feel pathetic about her jealousy in this Upper West Side love triangle. And so begins a knock-down, drag-out battle of the species that, while provoking a cascade of easy laughs, discreetly fortifies them with philosophical fiber. Gurney is looking for guffaws, sure, but he’s also considering co-dependency, the alienating effect of civilization versus our instinctive past, biophilia (love of “the processes of nature”), and whether interspecies romance is sweet or sick. (No, the 1995 play contains no overt bestiality—no need to worry about that.)
Played too broadly, Sylvia could be a shticky ordeal of canine caricature. But thanks to the direction of R. Hamilton Wright (Greg in the Rep’s 1996 production), the pacing is smart and the performances excellent. Cast as a dog, the energetic Morris speaks in a normal human voice and wears vaguely human clothes (a mix of furry brown sweaters and sexier pink “fresh-from-the-groomer” ruffles, designed by Melanie Taylor Burgess to illustrate Sylvia’s state of mind). Yet her dogness comes out loud and clear in her prancing gait, vigorous yelping of the word “Hey!”, and obsession with crotches, most notably that of Kate’s snobby friend Phyllis—hilariously embodied by silk-suited, diamond-decked Darragh Kennan, who also plays Tom, a fellow dog owner at the park. There Tom warns Greg that a cute female dog bearing a human name spells the death of his marriage and—speaking of events left offstage—relishes discussing the sex life between his lab and Sylvia. (After his dog’s coupling, he enjoys a post-coital cig.)
Greg is a tough role. He’s falling apart, a caged animal in a life he doesn’t seem to relate to anymore. Selling commodities on Wall Street that are increasingly abstract, his plight presages the recent meltdown of an economic system built on vapor. No wonder he craves something “real,” and settles for a dog’s unconditional worship. The buttery sofas of Carey Wong’s upscale set become contested territory, which Greg seems to delight in corrupting with Sylvia’s earthy, transgressive presence. Greg, all smiles and visceral joy for his pooch, miraculously maintains our sympathy despite his breathtaking insensitivity toward Kate, ignoring her, barking commands at her, etc. For non-dog people, Kate is the hero, valiantly fighting for civility, reason, and unmediated human intimacy. Kate’s lonely dignity—combined with the crummy remarriage statistics for women of a certain age—makes it easy to feel her pain.
Some aspects of Sylvia are less successful, like the gratuitous “crazy shrink” scene with Kate’s androgynous therapist, Leslie; in this third role, Kennan does what he can with a skunk-like pompadour and thin material. Furthermore, the linchpin question of whether Greg and Kate’s dicey marriage is worth saving is never addressed. Also, we never get to see for ourselves what this marriage was like pre-Sylvia, because she’s already there in the opening gambit. And, weirdly, while this mutt begins with simple, emotionally expressive language, she inexplicably graduates to the cerebral, citing Homer and quoting Blanche DuBois. (Random fun fact: Sylvia was first played off-Broadway by Sarah Jessica Parker, post-Annie and pre-Carrie.)
Still, Sylvia feels deeper and more resonant than Gurney’s earlier, best-known work, The Dining Room. When Sylvia, left in the apartment alone, breaks into a heartbreakingly earnest cabaret rendition of Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” I didn’t mind a bit. It is, after all, a forlorn anthem for the yearning dog in each of us.