Did you know that when your dog barks, she’s actually saying “Hey! Hey! Hey!” Or that underneath that fluffy happy exterior lurks a dog who can curse a blue streak? You’ll learn these and other fun facts if you catch South of Broadway’s Sylvia, written by A.R. Gurney and directed by Joseph Baldino. It’s a story about a man whose obsession with his dog threatens his marriage. The dog, Sylvia, has her own problems, fighting for approval so as not be sent to the pound.
Before the show begins, artistic director Mark Gorman came out and barked at audience members before welcoming them. Jazzy music by musicians such as Diana Krall and Frank Sinatra played before and between sets, and contributes to the feel-good atmosphere.
The play is well-cast. Samantha “Sam” Andrews plays the eponymous character, a dog ready to take on the world, with flair and humor. Andrews has the spot-on mannerisms of a dog, and a spastic, ditzy, yet tough-minded one at that: she sniffs, she fidgets, she throws fits when she can’t sit on the furniture. In a role that requires a startling amount of energy, Andrews’s vivacity never flags. She is thoroughly entertaining (there are hilarious bits where she becomes amorous with another character’s leg and when she curses out a cat), and her sense of timing is impeccable. She is also appropriately worshipful of her master Greg, who rescued her.
Daniel Hall Kuhn plays Greg, a man experiencing a mid-life crisis and searching for something more. Kuhn is believably earnest and newly attentive to the “natural world” and getting back in touch with his male “instinct.” He plays a character convincingly in love with his dog — he gazes at her with seemingly-real adoration.
Nicole Antonacci stars as Greg’s Shakespeare-spouting wife Kate, who is not a fan of Sylvia. Antonacci plays an authentically calm and reasonable (though sometimes rattled) schoolteacher whose knowledge of and love for her husband wins out. When she becomes increasingly fed-up with the all-consuming adoration Greg shows his dog, we feel her frustration and pain.
K.C. Graham is sensational in his roles of three different characters: Tom, a fellow dog owner who gives Greg advice on dogs and marriage; Phyllis, a rich, cross-dressing, ex-alcoholic friend of Kate’s, and Leslie, a gay, overly-needy and slightly unhinged counselor. Graham is a pleasure to watch; he plays each of his roles with verve, humor, and a great sense of timing.
The set and lights by Mark Gorman were fitting and contributed to the snug, light-hearted atmosphere. The set’s a living room of an apartment with black, white, and grey décor. The backdrop is a scene of New York skyscrapers. When lights are dim, we see a constellation (Canis Major?) on the screen above. Screen projections are also useful for scene breaks: we see photos of parks when they go for walks or, at one point, an airport.
Sylvia is dressed (at first) in street clothes — sweats and sneakers, one sock pulled up to look mutt-like, her hair fluffed out and tousled to show that she needs considerable care. As the play progresses and she’s groomed, she has sleeker looks, wearing orange or black frocks and black leggings, a hot pink collar, and her smooth hair is pulled up in hair bows. In one scene, after being spayed, she sports the shameful cone around her head.
For opening night, the show went off without a hitch. There were a couple of minor rhythm and timing problems in the one Cole Porter song, “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” but even that wasn’t distracting.
Sylvia is a crowd-pleaser. Though comic, there are some serious ideas at work: the struggle of instinct versus commitment, loyalty, unconditional love, and seeing things from different points of view. It’s about relationships and compromise.