By John Quinn
The truly creative artist can take a shop-worn theme and turn it into something new and wonderful. A. R. Gurney did just that with his 1995 hit, “Sylvia,” the current rousing production of Two Muses Theatre in West Bloomfield. Gurney takes on the male mid-life crisis, but instead of furnishing his character with a little red sports car, the playwright gives him a little red-headed enchantress – Sylvia. The twist? Sylvia isn’t your run-of-the-mill mistress. She’s a dog.
Empty-nesters Greg and Kate are apparently settling into their Manhattan apartment, but Greg is feeling the angst of middle age. His relationship with Kate is in flux; she’s exploring a new career. His job is empty and unfulfilling. Greg finds a stray in Central Park; her only identification is a tag marked “Sylvia.” On the spur of the moment, he takes her home – much to the chagrin of Kate, who after half a lifetime of childrearing is not pleased with a new dependent. Ah, how little she knows! Greg’s fascination with Sylvia makes the pooch the “other woman” in an unlikely love triangle.
Talking animals aren’t a new literary phenomenon – it’s older than Aesop. But in this modern fable Gurney returns to the roots. In “Sylvia,” Greg and Kate can “talk to the animals,” and – oh, my! – can Sylvia talk back. Unlike Jason Gann in the FX Network series “Wilfred,” Barbie Amann Weisserman plays Sylvia without the cheap dog suit or character make-up. It’s an extraordinarily physical role, which she pulls off with grace and charm. Understand, most of the time Sylvia walks (and runs and bounces) on two legs, yet Weisserman never lets us forget Sylvia’s essential doggy character. Just as soon as we’re comfortable with an “illicit” affair – long walks at night, dinner for two, serious emotional conversations – Sylvia spots a cat and unleashes the profane, scatological tirade you just KNOW every dog has used against felines. We just never had the opportunity to hear it in English.
As her adopted family, John DeMerell and Nancy Cooper deftly play a couple on the cusp of change, each partner relying on different, conflicting coping skills. The trio is a delight together – so much so that scenes are less effective when Sylvia isn’t on stage. It’s as if Gurney is saying that Greg and Kate are better at communicating through the dog than face to face.
“Sylvia” is one of the most intelligent scripts in the catalogue. It is light, witty and yet probes the complex emotional bond between people and pets. But that’s only a narrative device, and one need not be a dog lover to enjoy the plot. The theme explores the universal fear of change, of growing older, of renewing relationships. It is no surprise that director Diane Hill brings out all the nuances of a marvelous piece and renders its fantasy so believably.
Set designer Bill Mandt, lighting designer Lucy Meyo and their crews deserve special notice for their solid workmanship in the less than ideal conditions of the performance space.
And while on that subject, I sat in the third row, and was able to hear every juicy line. The couple next to me spent the first scene grousing that they couldn’t hear – hey, I thought I was the deaf one. I don’t think that poor projection the problem – but I’m wondering if this big box of a room has some inevitable dead spots.
That being said, I think “Sylvia” is a howlin’ success.
Two Muses Theatre at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 6800 Orchard Lake Road, West Bloomfield. Friday-Sunday through July 1. $15-18. 118 minutes. 248-850-9919. http://www.TwoMusesTheatre.org