By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
In “Sylvia,” one character warns another that if you give a dog a woman’s name you soon start thinking of the dog as a woman.
Well, if you cast a fine comic actress as a dog, believe me you will start thinking of her as a dog, a lovable, neurotic, rambunctious, affectionate, and always entertaining dog.
With Traci Johnson playing the title dog in A.R. Gurney’s comedy, the Black Swamp Players have done just that. “Sylvia” opens Friday at 8 p.m. in the First United Methodist Church, 1526 E. Wooster, Bowling Green. The comedy continues its run Saturday, Sept. 16, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 17, at 2 p.m. and next weekend Sept. 23 and 24 at 8 p.m. and Sept. 25 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12 and $10 for seniors and students from Grounds for Thought or by visiting www.blackswampplayer.org.
The adult comedy, directed by Wayne Weber, is one of Gurney’s explorations of white, upper middle class angst.
Greg (Ryan Albrecht) and Kate (Stephanie Truman) are empty nesters in the 1990s who have moved into New York City from the suburbs, and they are experiencing just the city life they were seeking… dinner parties, chamber music concerts, Knicks games.
After raising their two children, now away at college, Kate has a blossoming career in education. Her mission is to bring Shakespeare to inner city junior high students.
She’s earnest and devoted to her new endeavor. Greg, on the other hand, is at a dead end with his job, which somehow involves money markets. Sort of a vague sitcom dad kind of employment.
After another argument with his boss, he flees work for the park. That’s where he meets Sylvia. It’s love at first sight.
The play opens with them coming into the apartment for the first time. Other than a collar, there’s little to tell the audience that Johnson is playing a dog. You don’t need to be told. Her high energy and begging for affection does the trick. Johnson is a superb comic actress. She can deliver a punchline with the tilt of her head, or by bounding onto the sofa.
Greg is smitten, and all his frustrations seem to fade when he’s with her. He pours all his attention into her care. Not good for his job, which he loses, and that’s fine with him. Not good for his marriage which is endangered by the intrusion of this creature. That for him seems more problematic. Kate and Greg are at the same stage of life, yet dealing with it in opposite ways, and Sylvia, who is as much a mistress as a pet, is pulling on the leash, taking Greg even further away.
Albrecht’s Greg is truly lost soul, not knowing what is happening to himself. His affection for Sylvia is palpable, and obsessive. Yet the sexual innuendo never is creepy. And Albrecht’s Greg always seems a little bewildered by this turn of affairs, as if his inner life has spun out of control.
Truman does well not to make Kate (fitting name for one so devoted to Shakespeare) the stereotypical careerist shrew, but rather someone in love with what she does and excited to have the opportunity explore it. That includes a trip to England. Kate’s dislike of Sylvia is as palpable as Greg’s love for the dog, but still Truman never comes off as mean, just flummoxed and confused by Greg’s affection for the dog.
The play also gets a lift from the minor characters. Hilary Packard has one hilarious scene as a socialite friend and Vassar classmate of Kate’s. Her pretensions are shattered by Sylvia’s enthusiastic crotch sniffing.
Josh Cloyd plays two parts. One is Tom, the wise-cracking, pop psychology spouting New Yorker. Greg meets him, and Sylvia meets his dog Bowser, in the dog park. Then Cloyd has a scene as an androgynous marriage counselor whom Greg pushes over the edge.
Packard and Cloyd bring just the right bit of comic shading and insight into the main characters.
But it’s up to Johnson, Albrecht and Truman deliver the right mix of slapstick and pathos, and they do.
The ending may be a little too tidy, but the audience will be glad the characters find some resolution. And as Kate, who has a penchant for quoting Shakespeare, might say: All’s well that ends well.
Local theatergoers should be assured that seeing “Sylvia” will be time well spent, even if you’re not a dog lover.