Monday, May 30, 2011

Sylvia by A.R. Gurney

By Joe Straw 

She hated my cat, Pacino. 

My first wife brought him home as a kitten and we were to baby-cat-sit for the weekend.   I grabbed him and put him up to my face.  “What's your name?” I snarled.  Sensing a potential enemy, he bit my nose, hard.  And then stayed for the rest of his life. 

He was my lucky cat who had a nice fur and rarely purred.  He taught himself to use the toilet. Sometimes he was irritating but mostly he was a good companion to both of us.  He slept with my wife up until her final days with cancer. 

My second wife liked Pacino while we were dating.  She thought he was funny.  Then after we were married she tolerated him and then after children she hated him.  He was too loud, she wanted him fixed, wanted to find him a new home, and lastly wanted me to shoot a documentary of him being very annoying.  The list of demands was excessive.

But, Pacino was getting old.  Close to twenty years old.  At night he was kept in his own room with his own toilet and during the day he slept in his chair under the warmth of the sun.

After work, around Christmas time, she said there was no sound from his room.  When I found Pacino, he had fallen near his water dish and had gotten himself wet.  He was alive and not moving.

I dried him completely and laid him on a nice cushion and wrapped a towel around him.  I scratched the back of his ear.  He said, “Thank you.” (And here I can’t help but to take a long pause.) I told my girls Pacino was dying.  They came in and the three of us said goodbye.

The girls had their Christmas recitals that night so we left Pacino, to do what he had to do.   When we got back he had died.

My wife never said goodbye.

I cried at the end of Sylvia by A.R. Gurney directed by Gary Imhoff at the Edgemar Center for the Arts.  Uncontrollable tears were streaming down my face for many reasons.  This is a funny, heartwarming play, for anyone who cares about the creatures that have given them significant moments in their lives.  Bring tissues for the ending.  Bring lots of tissues.

Briefly, the play is about Greg (Stephen Howard) a middle-aged man who is having a terrible time at work and takes the afternoon off. Wandering mindlessly in the park he finds Sylvia (Tanna Frederick) a mutt who latches on to him like a new chew toy. He thinks they’ve bonded and he takes her home.

The very interesting thing about A. R. Gurney’s play is that Sylvia speaks, or is it a bark that Greg interprets to his own choosing?

“Hey! Hey! Hey!” – Sylvia

That’s Sylvia barking.  (Isn’t she cute?) And when Sylvia speaks, she understands what she is saying but, aside from a few choice words, does she really understand what her new owners/friends are telling her?

“Sylvia” is her given name. It says so on her tags, but she has been abandon and possibly at the right moment in Greg’s life. Greg’s job weighs on him.  His boss has become a terrible burden and he needs Sylvia to get him past this point in his life.

But there’s a problem and it’s his wife Kate (Cathy Arden).  She has suddenly found a new passion in her life now that the kids are off to college.  She is teaching Shakespeare to inner city middle school kids.  And she doesn’t want that mongrel messing up her beautiful life.

“She’s not the most beautiful thing I’ve seen, Greg.” – Kate

When Greg takes a call from his boss in the other room Kate and Sylvia go at it.  Kate threatens Sylvia with the nicer accommodations of the pound.

“If someone doesn’t bail you out, normally within five working days, then they put you to sleep…They do!  They kill you!  It’s a tough world out there lady.- Sylvia

Maybe it’s the combination of Sylvia and Greg applying pressure for Sylvia’s homestead, but somehow Greg convinces Kate to have Sylvia stay a few more days.

Greg:  Let me at least try her, Kate.
Kate:  For how long?
Greg:  A few days.
Sylvia:  Yippee!  Yay!  I sense a change in the weather here.

And yes, dogs do have that sense.

Greg takes Sylvia out to the dog park and runs into Tom (Tom Ayers) who gives him worldly advice about dogs, wives, and maintaining a relationship.

“Always remember that your dog is simply a dog.  Always keep reminding yourself of that fact.  Not a person.  Just a dog.  Force yourself to think it.  Otherwise you can get into deep dog sh*t.” – Tom

Later Greg takes Kate to the airport and there is a discussion about Sylvia.  Kate will not let this dog thing lie and thinks Sylvia is taking over their lives.  Greg tells Kate he will miss her.

Kate:  Oh sure.
Greg:  Really I will.    

Kate enlists her friend from Vassar, Phyllis (Tom Ayers, again) to help her find people who will help her with the Shakespeare program.  But what Kate really wants to do is to enlist a friend to support her side of the battle between her and Greg about Sylvia.  Phyllis believes that men and their pets is an unnatural thing.  But realistically it’s about wives not getting enough, attention. 

Phyllis: I think all men should be Republicans, Kate.  It seems to be good for their prostate.

When Sylvia arrives and starts in on Phyllis’ crotch, Phyllis loses the battle and scurries on home. 

During the course of the play Greg dresses Sylvia up, takes her to the park, gets her spayed, takes care of her and treats her with the care that Kate wishes she got from him.  

Later in the play a decision regarding the marriage is made, offstage.  It comes as a complete shock and it is delivered in a matter of fact tone to Sylvia.  It is a decision that will affect all of their lives. 

Tanna Frederick as Sylvia does a very fine job in a physically demanding role. She takes a more humanistic approach to the characterization of Sylvia while one feels adding a little more dog would be just fine.   Still, she is hilarious and a brilliant actor.

Stephen Howard as Greg was almost perfect.  He has so many things going on in his life and so many problems to grapple.  The demands on his life are too challenging.  One can either accept the problems, and die, or find a short-term solution to the problem without going completely nuts.  On the inside he is boiling with the emotions of having to satisfy a wife, job and to take care of his kids in college.  He needs time with Sylvia to accept life’s demands and to understand the world one conflict at a time.   Howard did a marvelous job keeping his cool and trying to please everyone.

Cathy Arden as Kate did a nice job.  Very likeable and not too demanding but probably could have hit those moments a little harder to get what she wanted.  In this version, gone are the Shakespearian references.  (One is not sure why that happened.) Also, the character seems to be compulsive and aggressive, but in the end she has a huge heart.  This was a delightful performance in many ways. 

Tom Ayers was very funny as Tom and Phyllis.  These were wonderful portrayals of characters that define the individuals that come in and out of our lives.  As Tom he may be just the right person Greg needs at this time, the missing link. Without saying things so outlandish which Greg may interpret as Tom being the missing link.  Ayers in drag was hilarious as Phyllis, even going so far to find a dog hair in her water.  This was a marvelous performance and moments that will be remembered for some time to come.  

Gary Imhoff, the director has done a fine job.  He is subtle in his approach and in the end the play hits all the right emotional marks. Directing, defining the choices, and making them imaginative are always the “thing” to do.  One could say that the director made it simplistic in form. But left out were the extreme levels of pain the characters feels when they are on the verge of loosing a spouse, a job, a way of life, or a dog. But then, would it still be a comedy?  Yes it would.

There was another character in the play that did not appear in this particular performance.  Her/his name Leslie (Tom Ayers, once again) a character that is gender neutral.  One is not sure what happened on this particular night.  Maybe they couldn’t get him/her into the dress fast enough.
One is not really sure why A.R. Gurney’s play pushed so many buttons. There is a really interesting challenge with the actors which involves communications and working with a dog-like character.  They don’t really communicate, they just interpret what the animal is saying and/or the dog is responding to a natural flow to the voice. One of the very interesting things about the play is how uninterested parties take sides in the conflict between Kate and Greg’s life.   And how a dog can play a pivotal role in the success or demise of a marriage.  The three main characters are at a pivotal moment in their lives.  Success or failure depends on how much each is willing to give.  And yes all three must be willing to give, even the dog.

And as Phyllis would ask in her New York accent: “The dawwwg?”  Yes the dog.

The beautiful Set and Lighting Designer is Joel Daavid who has done a magnificent job, beautiful in design and purpose and compliments the actors on stage.

Alexandra Guarnieri, the Producer, has done a marvelous job putting all of this together.