Stage: Wednesday, June 06, 2002
Bad Dog

Circle Theatre’s ‘Sylvia’ is a one-trick puppy.


Summer is the season for high-concept, lightweight entertainment: stories with a simple idea played out in enjoyable, if somewhat predictable, fashion. Maybe this is because summer equals carefree fun, and it’s too damn hot to ponder Jesus Hopped the “A” Train or any other such heavy-duty dirge, anyway.

Which is not to condemn all frivolities. Coup Deville: Time Travelin’ Brother (Star Wars with funk music) and I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change (love is tricky) are two thoroughly enjoyable examples of the genre. Lately though, much of this stuff seems to be getting dumber and duller. Jar the Floor, anybody?

Sylvia at Circle Theatre is high concept, but it’s not very engaging or actually conceptual at that. The basic premise concerns a man and his dog. Specifically, Greg (Kim Titus), middle-aged and bored with life, stumbles upon pooch Sylvia (Nicole Case) in the park. Love at first sight blooms, and Greg deems Sylvia pet-worthy.

Problem is, Greg and his wife Kate (Lisa Fairchild) have just sent their last child off to college and recently traded suburbia for Manhattan apartment digs, not an ideal doggy environment. Kate, looking forward to using her recent masters degree to teach English and to making the rounds of the New York social scene, wants nothing to do with a dog.

Canine follies and marital spats ensue. What sounds promising quickly wears thin, however. The end result is a strange hybrid of one of Horton Foote’s lesser efforts and an ill-conceived UPN sitcom. Oh, you will laugh here and there, sometimes uproariously, but at two hours in length, Sylvia often feels like a dog year.

The play, which originally opened in New York with Sarah Jessica Parker in the doggy role, includes every canine joke you can think of: Dog pees on the floor, dog eats the shoe, dog farts without embarrassment. Since all of this, plus the underlying by-the-book midlife crisis theme, is visible a mile away, you’ll more than likely nod along in empathy rather than laugh heartily.

Some things do work. Sylvia talks — not in a voice only she and the audience can hear — but in a normal speaking tone; she converses directly with Greg and Kate. Instead of barking, she yells “Hey,” which makes sense because barking dogs are, I suppose, trying to catch their owner’s attention. It’s a cute touch.

Other jokes go on forever. One initially hilarious scene occurs when friend Phyllis (Mark O’Dell) visits Kate. Yelling, “New crotch to smell,” Sylvia bounds nose first into Phyllis’ nether region. The joke works — at first. We’ve all been victim to a sniffing Bowser. After three repeats of the gag, however, it soon becomes one of those awful Saturday Night Live skits, which contain 30 seconds of inspired humor but run on for an unendurable 10 minutes or so. Likewise, the Sylvia-in-heat scene:Giving voice to the pet’s horndog thoughts and earning the play’s R rating, it’s fun for a while, but it drags on too long. Sylvia’s short, venomous cat tirades succeed better.

Other elements just don’t work. Kate wants to teach Shakespeare to inner-city kids, and she frequently quotes the bard. The link is obvious but still feels pointless. Worse, the Greg-Sylvia-Kate triangle hints at jealousy and sexual tension. Jealousy? OK. But the rest sidles close to the disturbing. The wrap-up, as is typical of dog tales, goes for the puppy pathos of a sad ending. And, yes, the subtle manipulation puts a lump in the throat, but it still can’t match My Dog Skip or Old Yeller.

Case, who in no way looks likes a dog, nonetheless wonderfully mimics puppy mannerisms and thought. Fairchild, going seamlessly from stressed-out to bitter, brings a thoughtful and nuanced performance to an unlikable role. Overall, Sylvia is a case of a cast admirably dealing with less-than-stellar material.

But don’t fret. Circle Theatre has staged much better before, and they’ll stage better in the future. Sylvia, unfortunately, is like one of those plays you would never pay to see — or even read about — but might sit through on a weekend if there was absolutely nothing better to do and someone had given you a ticket. Although, like other lightweight fare, Sylvia amuses at times, it’ll probably make you wonder why you’re watching it instead of sitting at home playing with your cats.

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