'Sylvia' entertains with a quick wit and a friendly nudge from a goofy, loveable dog
A.R. Gurney's humorous twist on a relationship comedy, Sylvia is a delightful romp through the lives of a middle-aged couple. Recent empty nesters that just moved to the heart of New York City, Greg and Kate are settling, perhaps too comfortably, into the next phase of their life. Then, Greg finds Sylvia, a lost dog that runs up to him one afternoon in Central Park. The play covers several months in the couple's life as they struggle and come to grips with their feelings about mid-life, dog ownership, and each other.
The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves embraces the show's fluffy-tailed premise with gleeful enthusiasm. Kate, played with increasing sensitivity by Erin Stuckhoff, feels the addition of the dog will just complicate life with unwanted responsibility. She feels she is now finally getting the chance to advance in her career, and looks forward to a life with the personal freedom to pursue success. Greg, an amiable if somewhat out of sorts Jeff Lovell, finds friendship and a new zest for life walking, talking with, and caring for Sylvia. He's lost his passion for his job, in part due to disinterest, and finds a renewed sense of purpose that leads to discovery and change.
The handful of a dog is played with an energetic joie de vie and just the right amount of poodle attitude by the thoroughly entertaining and charming Chrissie Watkins. Watkins prances, pouts, and exuberantly howls her way through the show, physically embodying the spirit of Sylva in a way that's transformative, hilarious, and respectful.
The couple engages in spirited, often logically illogical conversations with Sylvia, who displays the eager need for attention of a puppy and the constant demands and watchfulness of a toddler. That is, until she goes into heat, at which point she behaves like a world-weary teenager trying to ditch her dad's careful watch. Jealousy, insecurity, and doubt rear their ugly heads, while a trio of supporting characters pop in and out to deliver hilariously pointed, if often misguided, advice.
Pepi Parshall and Chris Beckner are funny as know-it-all neighbors representing the pro and con views of dog lovers, and Darrious Varner is captivatingly comic as the purposefully androgynous therapist Leslie. Varner cleverly steals his scene without distracting from the overall story or minimizing the leads. The script is laugh out loud funny and filled with comic references to self-help and pop psychology, yet still manages to deliver a heart warming, uplifting ending.
The cleverly scripted Sylvia, filled with exaggerated but familiar characters and an over-the-top poodle, is a perfect choice for a community theater group, and the dedicated team at the Theatre Guild of Webster Groves hit their marks with confidence.
Director Mark Neels and his cast capably breeze through the light script and deliver the laughs, though I do wish they weren't telegraphed and paused for quite so noticeably. Additionally, the actors need to ensure they're enunciating and projecting well in the space, which sometimes seems to swallow the clever dialogue. Neels and the set designer also make a smart choice by using a spotlight and bench to the side of the stage apron to designate outdoor spaces, keeping the pace up and reducing the number of transitions.
Last weekend's ice storm caused a number of shows to lose significant audience, which is always disappointing to the actors and crew, as well as ticket holders. A successful production requires countless hours rehearsing, building sets, sewing and crafting costumes, hanging lights, adjusting sound, and running cues, all before greeting you at the door and welcoming you in. If you've been waiting for a reason to support performing arts, consider seeing Sylvia, or another play that opened last weekend, before it closes. Sylvia, in performance at the Theatre Guild of Webster Groves through January 22, 2017, is a sweet story delivered with a light touch and abundant laughs.