When it was produced in 1995, A.R. Gurneys play about a dog, the couple who adopts her and the drama that results, was called critic-proof by The New York Times Vincent Canby: At least for anyone who has ever owned a dog, loved a dog, wanted to wring a dogs neck or wished the dog would take a long weekend. The play Sylvia isnt quite critic-proof. Its the story of Greg and Kate who moved to Manhattan after 22 years of child-raising in the suburbs.
The play is about the couple and their marriage. It isnt really about the character that steals the show the dog, Sylvia. And yet, the playwright doesnt delve into the issues between these two in more than a superficial way.
Greg is disenchanted with his finance career. Kate is inspired by her new teaching career and a desire to make Shakespeare relevant to preteens. Both of them are looking for something real in their lives. They want to live actively. They know each other, but neither is communicating with the other.
Enter Sylvia, a dog that finds Greg (or Greg finds) in the park where he goes to escape his job. Sylvia is played by Laura Moore with big, limpid eyes and the sass of a canine mistress. Its her third time tackling the role, and she does it well. Note to audience goers: The play displays adult language. Its during one hysterical scene when Sylvia finds a cat hidden under a car while on a late night walk with Greg the profanity-laced tirade that ensues is laugh-out-loud appropriate.
Tim Moore and Lizz Baldwin play Greg and Kate, two characters who seem to be merely supporting caricatures for the star Sylvia. Baldwin has the toughest role because, in essence, Kate is the villain in this play. She doesnt like Sylvia, and the audience falls in love, as Greg does, with the dog. This is a tough role. The acting required is natural, subtle, and Baldwins performance is even-keeled. Many of Kates scenes end with her quoting from Shakespeare. The most significant is a line from Twelfth Night, Act III, Scene 4.
If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as improbable fiction.
And here is the rub that goes with this play. It seems to be improbably fiction but for the fact that many have looked at their dog and fallen for their unwavering devotion, their unconditional love.
I think youre God, Sylvia says to Greg in the opening scene.
Stay, Sylvia. Stay. And Sit, he commands.
I want to sit near you, she says inching closer to him.
Well all right, Greg says and Sylvia moves to his side.
Nearer, my God, to Thee, Sylvia says dreamily, resting her chin on his knee, staring up at him with blind adoration an adoration he no longer (or never) received from his wife (because human devotion is tempered).
One night, while out for a walk with Sylvia, Greg tells Sylvia that he and Kate started dating in high school.
We know each other cold, he says.
Then he realizes that he knows nothing about Sylvia. Where she came from. Why she left her previous owner. If she left or was lost.
And you never will, Sylvia says. See? Im a mystery. Im whats known as the Other. Thats never happened to you before. Thats why Im so exciting. And thats what love is all about.
But thats not what love is all about. The mystery may be exciting. The mystery may be thrilling, but its not love.
As Greg attempts to dissect his own midlife crisis, wondering at the disillusionment that goes with postindustrial capitalism. His desire to not just live, but to be living. Sylvia struggles to add to the dialogue.
I got nothing, she says.
Later, when Greg tries to explain his desire for something real to Kate, she responds with a similar lack of understanding. Neither the dog nor his wife gets him.
The play ends when Kate suddenly has a change of heart, spurred on by Sylvia returning a lost copy of Alls Well That Ends Well barely torn or chewed. Kate agrees to let Sylvia stay.
Its improbably fiction. Life does not work out this way except on the stage where problems do not matter so long as the outcome is good. And just as Alls Well is one of Shakespeares problem plays, Sylvia is a bit of a problem for Gurney. Neither play is easily classifiable as comedy or tragedy, including elements of both.
Leanne Goebel is a freelance writer and member of the International Association of Art Critics. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.