Usually when a man has a mid-life crisis, he gets a new car or a new wife, but in A.R. Gurney's Sylvia, Greg (Robin Burke) gets a new dog named Sylvia (Laura Artesi). Immediately, they are mutually smitten, but Greg's wife, Kate (Marilyn Reeves), is not happy one bit about having a dog in the house, especially since Greg seems to prefer Sylvia's company to hers. Sylvia and Greg are inseparable, and she changes his whole outlook on life. He switches political parties, becomes a feminist, and wants to quit his job to do something "essential."
Sylvia is a typical mutt with one exception: she understands and speaks to humans. With her exceptional language skills, Sylvia has picked up some colorful vocabulary. When she eyes a cat in the yard, she runs through George Carlin's list of seven dirty words and keeps on going. Somewhere along the way, she read Homer's The Odyssey.
While Sylvia isn't dull, she isn't particularly appealing, either. In an effort to be energetic and peppy, Artesi is hyper and frantic. The comic timing is thrown off and lines are nervously rushed, losing their appeal. This hyper labrapoodle doesn't pant as much as much as she lets her mouth hang open between sentences. It isn't a wonder that Kate wants to dump her off at the pound.
Kate is done raising children and pets and wants to enjoy the empty nest with her husband of 22 years. She's focused on teaching Shakespeare to New York City middle schoolers, and Sylvia doesn't fit into her lifestyle. Reeves delivery is hesitant and unsure. Too often her body language and dialogue are out of sync. Reeves' best moments on stage are when Kate is getting soused on Scotch. Finally, the audience sees a variation in facial expression and speech patterns.
The strongest actor in the cast is Burke, but he is weighted down by a lack of chemistry among the overall cast. Director Mary Cimino allows the pace to laboriously drag in some scenes and the nervous habits of the actors to distract the audience. Also, awkward blocking and movement prevent the actors from emotionally connecting.
Although the production is highlighted by moments of humor and sentimentality, by the time the plot reaches a climax, apathy overrules. Gurney throws in three bizarre supporting characters that seem like they were hijacked from another play and thrown into the mix. To quote Kate in a moment of confusion, "As Shakespeare said, 'What the Fuck?'" Indeed!
Sometimes a show just doesn't meld. Theatre is a collaborative art, so if one major element isn't working, it affects the tone of the whole production, even one, like Sylvia, which was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Best Play.