A Bone to Pick with “Sylvia”

Photo by David Costa; L/R: Allan Mayo (Greg) and Shana Dirik (Sylvia)

Presented by Theater UnCorked
Directed by Michelle M. Aguillon
Written by A.R. Gurney

April 18-21, 2019
Calderwood Pavilion
539 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02116
Theater UnCorked on Facebook

Review by Gillian Daniels

(Boston, MA) You need to know that I really love dogs. I watch videos on YouTube of dogs playing, ashamed of chewing through things, and mindlessly devoted to various owners as they try to follow them to work. But in watching Sylvia, I couldn’t make space in my heart for it the way I have done for pitbulls, goldens, and mutts. The story is just that the dog’s played by a lady (Shana Dirk) and the man who adopts her, Greg (Allan Mayo, who has a gentle, nervous presence), adores her while the put-upon, uptight wife, Kate (the formidable Kim McClure), is jealous. Repeat joke until end of play. Curtain. And folks who want just that out of their theater experience will be satisfied.

I was not. It can be fun and funny, and there were a couple times I did chuckle, but mostly, I found myself counting the minutes until it ended. You would think a show that claims to have such an out-there premise would have the decency to be a little more weird and interesting. But no, the story arcs of the characters are telegraphed from the beginning: the dog will find a home, the nebbish-y guy who doesn’t like his job is bound to realize he’s having a mid-life crisis, and the prudish wife is meant to unbend.

Beyond her resentment of the dog, Kate is an English teacher, so of course she’s chiefly defined by quoting Shakespeare in soliloquy when she deems it theatrically appropriate. McClure seems to take over the stage when this happens and I enjoyed these moments. But I wasn’t fond of Kate’s ban regarding the word “fuck” in her own home, outside of her job, as if studying and promoting Shakespeare means that one would never make a dirty joke. The Taming of the Shrew literally begins with a masturbation joke! And like Kate from Taming of the Shrew, her story arc seems to be about being tamed by her husband’s choices, which happen to be dog-owning choices initially made without consulting her. Also, she has a career as a teacher at an inner-city school where she hopes to bring some “civility” via the Bard. She claims the “urban” junior high children she teaches are in need of “more words” because all they seem to have is rap, etc, a deeply creepy, racist sentiment that has aged poorly since the play’s off-Broadway premiere in 1995. A.R. Gurney’s work could use some updates.

I suppose, as an over-serious, avocado-loving, car-less millennial, I’m predisposed to being biased against Kate and Greg. They’re a baby boomer couple with enough money to send their children to college and maintain a beautiful apartment in New York. There’s some worry that when Greg no longer has a job, he won’t be able to pay for any of that, but the consequences are muted. I felt even more disconnected from the characters when Kate and her wealthy friend, Phyllis (David Anderson), pine regretfully for Greg’s days as a Republican. No thanks.

Along with the snobbish Phyllis, David Anderson plays Tom, an uber-macho dog owner in the park who lectures Greg on how prone women are to jealousy over husbands who love their dogs. He also plays Leslie, a gender-non-conforming therapist (yes, this is in the play, and hit some very awkward trans stereotypes) who, in uptight indignance, advises Kate to divorce her husband and shoot the dog. I admired Anderson’s range in the first act in playing Phyllis and Tom with seamless enthusiasm. By the second act, though, I found the aggressive personalities of each of his characters beginning to blend together.

Sylvia is broad and mean-spirited regarding human nature. About the only good quality to be had by any character in this show is a love of dogs, which I suppose speaks to the worldview presented here. The women (dog excluded) are buzzkills and the main character is just trying to find his way, you know, just adopting a dog who he regards like a mistress, weirdly, and taking a break from his job without telling his wife, it’s fine, why are you being so controlling about it?

This is not a very deep, cerebral play, though, and doesn’t set out to be. Otherwise, there would be more consistency regarding when and how Greg and Kate understand Sylvia. Also, I wouldn’t feel like I was committing the crime of “overthinking mindless fun” for trying to add more meaning to a show where a woman with pigtails is a stand-in for a dog.

The humor that does work for me is Shana Dirik’s portrait of dogs and their quirks: spoiled, feigning ignorance regarding the rules of sitting on a coach, timid, awkwardly horny (yes, Sylvia humps things, enjoy), food-motivated adoration, and unfettered worship of humans. Dirik keeps things light and her Ethel Merman impression is fun. I am not made of stone; as I said, I love dogs. Still, of the actresses I have seen doing dog impressions in theater in the past few months, I had a lot more fun watching Sarah Gazdowicz’s performance as Bruno in Shipwrecked! back in December.

Gurney claims the play was initially rejected by many producers because it “equated a dog with a woman, and to ask a woman to play a dog was […] blatantly sexist.” I don’t think someone doing an impression of an animal is sexist, but a story where a wife and a dog are pitted against each other to win the affections of the hapless “but I’m such a nice guy” protagonist? Yeah, it creeped me out. I have found reviews from a 2015 production that claim the show would be “stoned to death by feminists” if it’s initial run was in this century. I have no interest in stoning anyone or anything, but I do have an interest in promoting extraordinary theater. This isn’t it.

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