The Women in His Life

Two of a man’s most fundamental relationships are those with his wife and with his dog, not necessarily in that order. The play we saw last night, “Sylvia“, by A.R. Gurney, which is currently in production at the Edgemar Center in Santa Monica, explores just those relationships.

Here’s the scoop, Scooby-doo. Sylvia takes place in the mid-1990s (although it could be anytime) in New York City. Greg, a middle-age middle-class man who hates what his job as become finds Sylvia, a dog played by a human, in the park and takes a liking to her. He brings her back to the empty nest he shares with Kate. Kate, on the other hand, has finally escaped the kids and the dogs, She’s got a new job teaching English to inner-city kids, and is enjoying going out with Greg to the nightlife of New York. A dog destroys this. So when Kate comes home to Sylvia, she wants her gone. They eventually decide that Sylvia will stay for a few days before they decide whether she can stay longer, but Greg and Sylvia have already bonded. Greg starts spending more and more time with Sylvia, and less and less time at work. Greg talks to Sylvia, and she listens. Tension increases between Greg and Kate, and eventually, Greg becomes completely obsessed with Sylvia. Meanwhile, Kate is fearing that their marriage is falling apart. Kate and Sylvia are at odds with each other, each committed to seeing the other defeated. The detent continues until two breaking incidents: first, Sylvia goes into heat and has an encounter with Bowser at the dog park, leading to Sylvia getting spayed. Secondly, Kate applies for a grant to teach in London, and gets accepted. This means that Greg must decide between Kate and Sylvia, because the UK has a six-month dog quarantine. I’ll leave the final resolution a surprise. If you’re really curious, read the Wiki Synopsis.

(I’ll note the synopsis discusses a scene with a therapist. Either I blacked out at some point, or the Edgemar cut that scene (at least last night). The character is listed in the program, so perhaps they had it at one point. I didn’t miss it.)

At its heart: Sylvia is a combination love story and growing older story, just like “On Golden Pond“. In this case, the growing older part addresses the (far too often, although I’m still waiting for mine) mid-life crisis that men go through. They’ve been with the same job for 20+ years, the same woman for 20+ years, and having a new beauty in their life adds spice and vitality, and reenergizes them. This beauty can be a sportscar, it can be a mistress, or in Greg’s case, it can be a dog. They lavish time and attention on this thing, which loves them back, while ignoring older relationship. This comes back to bite them in the butt, and they eventually need to decide: which relationship is more important. Sometimes they can work it out, sometimes they can’t. This is what Sylvia explores, in a very funny manner.

At the heart of Sylvia is Sylvia herself, the little bitch (I had to work that in somewhere). Sylvia is portrayed by Tanna Frederickæ, a super-energetic skinny little thing who works her tail off, bounding from here to there in a performance that is not overly cutesy. Tanna jumps on furniture; she licks; she humps; she barks. She captures all those dog mannerisms in a portrayal that is, at its heart, human. You really get the feeling that she loves Greg, unconditionally. You sometimes wonder why her original owner gave her up.

Sylvia’s owner, Greg, is portrayed by Stephen Howardæ. I truly liked his performance, perhaps because he seemed so easy going, so lost in where his job was going, and so needing the acceptance that Sylvia gave him. You didn’t get the feeling that this was an actor playing a character; you felt this was a man with his dog. Stephen was just at home being Greg.

Greg’s wife, Kate, was played by Cathy Ardenæ. Again, Cathy was at home with the character of Kate. You could tell she was in love with Greg, and wanted to spend more time with him… and was thus exasperated when his attentions turned to Sylvia, the other woman. An enjoyable performance.

Rounding out the cast was Ron Vignone, in the dual roles of Tom and Phyllis (a third role, Leslie, is also listed in the program, but this is the therapist scene that was cut). Evidently, Vignone was a replacement for Tom Ayers, who became sick in August, threatening the future of the play’s run (it started in May). Vignone has down well with the small parts, especially with the portrayal of Tom in the second act, when Sylvia goes into heat.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

I should note that there is a significant reason why this cast works so well together: the three principles played the same roles when the production was done at the Sierra Madre Playhouse a long time ago.

The production was directed by Gary Imhoff, who not only has managed the mayhem, but turns humans into dogs quite convincingly. Leslie Turner served as stage manager, assisted by Jo Amari. Sylvia was produced by Alexandra Guarnieri.

Turning to the technical. The set was designed by Joel Daavid, who created a warm and welcoming apartment scene as well as side areas that served as the dog park. Daavid also served as lighting designer, using a simple design that focused on the actors. No credit was provided for sound, although there were suitable sound effects during the dog park scenes, as well as a wonderful collection of dog-themed music both before the show and at intermission.

Sylvia continues at the Edgemar Center for the Arts; no end date has been announced. Tickets are available through the Edgemar; they are also available via Goldstar.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Next weekend brings “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center on its opening night, November 19. Karen will also be seeing “Riverdance” at the Pantages on November 16. Thankgiving weekend brings “Bring It On” at the Ahmanson on Friday and the last show of the REP season, “The Graduate”, on Saturday November 26. The first weekend of December is lost preparing for ACSAC—you are coming, aren’t you? The next weekend is busy, with a Mens Club Shabbat in the morning, and Travels with my Aunt” at the Colony Theatre in the evening. The remainder of December is unscheduled, but I’m sure we’ll fill things in for Winter Break. Of course, there is the de rigueur movie and Chinese food on Christmas day. January will bring the first show of the REP East season, as well as (hopefully) “Art” at the Pasadena Playhouse and “God of Carnage” at ICT Long Beach. February will bring “Ring of Fire” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, possibly the “Funny Girl replacement show” at the Ahmanson, “Old Wicked Songs” at the Colony Theatre, and Bernadette Peters in concert at the Valley Performing Arts Center. As always, open dates are subject to be filled in with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.