Sylvia is a bow wow at Lone Tree Arts Center
Over the years, there have been dozens of heart-tugging movies featuring a boy — usually lonely and outcast — and his dog. (Lonely little girls are equally attached to their pets, but they don't get as much cinematic time.) Sylvia, now at the Lone Tree Arts Center, is about the bond between a grown man and his dog, a poodle labrador mix he finds wandering in the park and brings home. The relationship is just as intense as in all those dog-boy films, but sexier. The first scene of A.R. Gurney's play feels like a meet-cute pick-up sequence as Greg and Sylvia investigate their new relationship — except that, unlike the average woman, Sylvia reveals herself as completely smitten from the first. "I think you're God," she tells Greg. Because of course she talks. Don't all dogs?
Sylvia isn't costumed in a doglike way. She's a lively young woman — and in the person of Jamie Ann Romero, a very witty, beautiful, elegant and manipulative one. She can seem a soulmate who instinctively understands Greg's every thought, and she can also be uncontrollable and infuriating, peeing on the carpet, chewing his wife Kate's shoes, humping a visitor. Greg finds the walks he's forced to take with Sylvia in the park revelatory; they cause him to muse on the universe and his place within it. But here the relationship's limitations become clear: Sylvia is either distracted by handsome male dogs or completely uncomprehending. In short, she's both simple to understand and utterly mysterious. No wonder the man is smitten.
Unfortunately, he's also facing a midlife crisis, dissatisfied with his job, unsure what he wants to do next and, having seen his kids off to college, finding life with Kate a little too settled and familiar. Kate, meanwhile, is absorbed in her new career as a teacher, bringing Shakespeare to inner-city kids and encouraging their innate love of language, developing her own theories of education, and quoting the plays at every turn. How is she to cope with this beguiling new creature in their house and a husband who, having gazed into Sylvia's eyes, declares, "I finally understand the word 'limpid.'" It's no surprise when Kate and the dog both end up on all fours snarling at each other.
In a way, all of us are slaves to our dogs, bound by the silent current of affection and understanding we share with them. It's a relationship scientists are forever attempting to fathom. They argue about whether we tamed dogs or they tamed us, and suggest that it's likely we evolved symbiotically. A human being points to a hidden treat and the dog understands; primates, biologically our closest relatives, don't. A recent study shows that owners can correctly interpret their dogs' varying barks: Welcome. I want to go out now. Don't come any closer.
Sylvia's speech is not only human, but also very sophisticated: "Read the Odyssey sometime," she comments caustically when Greg suggests she'll eventually forget him. She has snappy (pun intended) comebacks for Kate. And at other times her utterances are those of pure unmediated dog — as when she roars her contempt and hatred at a passing cat. Sometimes she seems to speak from a purely canine perspective; at other times she's voicing Greg and Kate's ideas about what she's thinking.
Jonathan C. Kaplan is a fine Greg, though he looks a little young to have grown-up kids, and Kim Staunton turns in a strong performance as Kate. Randy Moore plays three separate comic characters, the funniest of them Kate's upper-class, cocktail-craving friend Phyllis. But it's Sylvia who steals the show, while stealing a page from another eloquent fictive dog, the protagonist of Andrew O'Hagan's The Life and Opinons of Maf the Dog, and His Friend Marilyn Monroe. "We usually hate cats," Maf says, "not for the typical reasons, but because they show an exclusive preference for poetry over prose. No cat ever spoke for long in the warmth of good prose. A dog's biggest talent, though, is for absorbing everything of interest — we absorb the best of what is known to our owners and we retain the thoughts of those we meet. We...have none of that fatal human weakness for making large distinctions between what is real and what is imagined." Sylvia — thanks to both Gurney and Romero — gets all this, and it's her playful presence that transforms the action from mundane to magical.
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