What a Dog

Last year 28 of America's regional theaters presented A.R. Gurney's comedy Sylvia, giving it the dubious distinction of being the most-produced play of the professional theater season apart from holiday regulars such as A Christmas Carol. There's an obvious reason: Despite some of Gurney's off-the-cuff remarks about politics, self-help gurus and the conditions of inner-city high schools, Sylvia doesn't try to tackle weighty issues. It's just plain fun--though audience members sensitive to abundant, gratuitous profanity might want to avoid it.

Currently at the Denver Center Theatre Company under the direction of Randal Myler, the 150-minute play concerns a middle-aged New York couple, Greg (Robert Westenberg) and Kate (Annette Helde). A successful commodities trader, Greg takes a stroll in Central Park during his lunch hour and discovers Sylvia, an abandoned dog. Her wide-eyed stare and, well, dogged devotion persuade him to adopt the beguiling pooch without consulting his wife. In due time, Greg decides that his career is an empty pursuit and focuses all of his energies on Sylvia. As a result, he loses his job and alienates his understandably distraught mate.

All of which sounds like a typical situation comedy--except that Gurney has written Sylvia to be played by a human actress (Stephanie Cozart) and gives the dog the ability to hold normal conversations with all of the characters on stage. It's a cute trick that inspires Cozart to talk like a human being while cavorting about the stage like a barely housebroken animal. To stir up matters further, Gurney adds three offbeat characters to the play who each benefit from the full comic effects of veteran DCTC actor Jamie Horton: Tom, a dog owner who befriends Greg in the park; Phyllis, Kate's tacky socialite friend who's also a member of Alcoholics Anonymous; and Leslie, a marriage counselor who struggles with her own issues of gender identity.

The acting is uniformly good and at times excellent. Horton is a hoot as the bracelet-snapping Phyllis, gotten up in garish makeup and a hideous blue-and-green dress. Later in the play, his portrayal of Leslie--complete with wave machine and Georgia O'Keeffe-inspired wardrobe--is almost as entertaining as his previous drag turn. Cozart is charming and full of the right kind of energy for Sylvia: You almost want to take her home with you at the end of the evening. But it's really Westenberg and Helde who make this production work. Without their meticulously crafted portrayals as the two straight men in the comedy, Horton's and Cozart's hilarious escapades wouldn't be nearly as amusing as they prove to be.

The production is not without its shortcomings. Twenty minutes into the second act, the scatological and sexual humor fails to elicit any response except silence from the audience. (Is it really necessary for Sylvia to rub her bottom against a lamppost after we hear about her graphic sexual encounter with another dog?) Also, Horton's dialects are a puzzlement--are those Midwestern, Mid-Atlantic or Southern accents he employs to characterize his purebred New Yorkers?

Such minor faults don't bother the audience much, though. True to its billing, Sylvia is certainly a crowd-pleaser, even if it does go a little overboard sometimes. And if playwrights such as Gurney went any further in their attempts to please, they wouldn't have much of an audience left: People would simply tune in something a little less vulgar--such as their favorite situation comedy.--Lillie

Sylvia, through February 14 at the Ricketson Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.

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Jim Lillie