Raising Canine

Sylvia is about a middle-aged man, mildly depressed by his companionably routine marriage and meaningless job, who finds a stray pup in the park and brings her home. The pup, Sylvia, is enchanting, distracting, puzzling and endearing, and naturally, his wife doesn't like her at all. The plot concerns the working out of the man's infatuation and the tension between his dog and his wife. This is pretty mild, basically sitcom-level stuff. What gives the play its indelible charm is playwright A.R. Gurney's central conceit: Sylvia is played by a real actress.

Naturally, it's a scene-stealing role. Sylvia (Amie MacKenzie in the new Nomad Theatre production) prances, leaps, preens, runs in frantic circles, twitches, wrinkles her nose and almost pulls her master off his feet when he leashes her. But it also means the actors have to walk a fine line. Because when MacKenzie leaps on Greg (John Ashton) and knocks him over backwards or noses up his wife Kate's skirt, you feel a moment of tension -- Uh-oh, things're gonna get really dirty now -- before you remember, Oh, right, she's a dog, and relax.

There are critics who have wanted to make something of this. They point out that adopting Sylvia is Greg's substitute for a midlife affair. Gurney is known for his gentle, good-humored plays, but these critics mutter that Sylvia reveals something darker in the playwright's psyche, that it shows an unconscious misogyny: man as master, ideal woman as entirely subservient. Kate, after all, is that bête noire of right-wing talk radio, a woman who's discovering her own goals and enjoying her growing independence. But this critical interpretation proves only one thing: that non-dog people will never understand dog people. Because the latter, among whom I most emphatically include myself, know exactly what the play is about. It's about humankind's profound bond with these amazing animals and the mystery at the heart of the relationship, which began around 15,000 years ago in East Asia, when some version of the wolf first crept into our ancestors' circle of firelight, attracted by the scent of food. Dogs are exquisitely attuned to us, reading our moods and gestures as we read theirs. Despite this, and despite their ubiquitous familiarity, we can never know their thoughts. They remain eternally and unalterably "other."

Gurney understands this well. Greg takes long nighttime walks with Sylvia, and his perception of the world deepens. He believes he and Sylvia are of one mind in this; she finds him puzzling. Once in a while, he waxes sentimental while she's scratching herself or pouncing on a stray scrap of food. But then there are moments when Sylvia interprets Greg's thoughts better than he himself can.

There are inconsistencies in the writing. Sylvia is sometimes more canine, sometimes less. Occasionally, she morphs into an eccentric but very recognizably human young woman. At times she seems to be an embodiment of Greg's thoughts and desires, but at others she has a strong sensibility of her own.

MacKenzie is charming in the role, tautly high-strung, scampering and mischievous. Ashton and Pam Clifton as Kate are charmers, too, actors whose years of experience translate into a relaxed and authoritative easiness on stage. And Bill Berry brings a downbeat humor to three very different roles.

I have two small cavils. One is with the play itself. After the hilarious opening scenes, Gurney seems to lose his way a little. There's some meandering; the plot feels thin. There's also a lack of tension in Clifton and Ashton's playing. They don't seem deeply worried about the rift opening between them, and you don't get the feeling that all that much is at stake. Clifton, who also directs, might take a look at the rhythm of some of these scenes.

Nonetheless, this is a very appealing production of an equally appealing play. On the night I saw it, audience members were still laughing as they left the theater. Outside, on the sidewalk, a woman was walking a handsome golden retriever. The dog's feathery tail waved as it walked briskly in sync with its owner; its focus, however, was elsewhere, on the cornucopia of scents arising from the ground. I watched its progress. For just one second, it was as if I'd never seen a dog before.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman