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Sylvia, A Masked Ball

Despite some leg humping, A. R. Gurney's fable gets best in show

That old showbiz axiom — work with dogs, risk being upstaged — receives a refreshing swat across the snout in A.R. Gurney's romantic fable Sylvia, now running at Town Center Theatre. In this ultra-smart marital comedy, the title character is a dog, played to canine perfection by the spirited Alison Luff.

In Gurney's warm and softly funny play, Sylvia romps with puppy abandon, yapping when annoyed, barking obscenities at nearby felines, humping a leg or two and indiscriminately peeing on the carpet. She is pure love, and her new master, unemployed Greg (John Chandler), who found her wandering lost in the park, is instantly smitten, falling hard under her doggie charm. But Greg's power wife Kate (Bonnie Hewett) is not amused. She's savvy enough to notice who's getting more loving between her and the dog. "Saliva," Kate calls the intruder with disparagement, has got to go. They circle each other warily, both on all fours by the end of Act I, each determined to be top dog.

Gurney's sly treatment of marriage, commitment and New York life gently mocks the universal, age-old battle of the sexes. The playwright's arsenal of tricks is as clever and adorable as Lassie's. Tipping the scales in this domestic triad are three subsidiary characters played by the same actor (Aaron Stryk on opening weekend; Ben Warner for the remaining performances). Buddy Tom is Greg's male chauvinist enabler who swears by self-help guru-type books like Your Pooch and Your Partner. Phyllis is Kate's Upper East Side yenta friend, who thinks a goldfish makes the safest companion for a distracted husband. Then there's Leslie of the indeterminate gender, the couple's marriage counselor who's sorely in need of her own therapist. Each has his or her own comic take on what it really means to a healthy relationship when one of the partners brings a different kind of love back home.

John Chandler and Bonnie Hewett star in ultra-smart marital comedy Sylvia.
Courtesy of Town Center Theatre
John Chandler and Bonnie Hewett star in ultra-smart marital comedy Sylvia.

Details

p>Sylvia

Through October 28. $25-$20.Through

A Masked Ball

November 2. $35-$250.
p>Sylvia

Bock Auditorium, 3800 S. Panther Creek Dr., The Woodlands, 832-592-9697.

A Masked Ball

Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-OPERA.

Under director Andrew Ruthven's smooth pacing, Gurney's cozy, hip play gleams with professional polish. The cast is an utter delight. Luff, of course, makes a sexy bitch; lovesick Chandler is as forlorn as a beagle; Hewett fights for her dignity with bulldog tenacity; and Stryk's versatility is truly best in show. A resounding pat on the head to Town Center — good dog!

On the Ball

Giuseppe Verdi's A Masked Ball (1859) races through its intertwining stories about a personal love triangle and worldly political intrigue as if breathless. This is Verdi at his most succinct, perhaps because the opera's creation was plagued by so many headaches, the maestro couldn't wait to be done with it. The censors in Naples adamantly forbade an opera that re-­created the assassination of a European monarch (Sweden's Gustavus III). But Verdi wouldn't be pushed around. He withdrew the work, causing an ugly scandal and a lawsuit. With fortuitous timing, Rome offered to stage the premiere with murder intact, if Verdi would just set it anywhere other than Europe, which was going through another spate of revolutionary zeal and assassination attempts. The most exotic locale he could imagine was America, so the Romans were treated not to Stockholm, but a sumptuous masked ball — in Boston! Fortunately, almost all contemporary productions place this fast-paced drama in its original location, or some reasonable facsimile. Houston Grand Opera uses a neo-Euro-trash look designed by Frank Philipp Schlössmann that evokes Sweden's jewel box of an opera house, the Drottningholm (where Gustavas's actual assassination occurred). If not always coherent, the colorful look is at least visually arresting, with its stage-within-a-stage perspective. In a whimsical touch, even the footlights sport dominos.

The story is that King Riccardo is in love with Amelia, wife of his best friend and chief counselor Renato. Riccardo ignores a brewing conspiracy to murder him, predicted by the witch Ulrica; he's such a nice guy, he'd rather plan a masked ball and moon over Amelia than deal with the dire predicament. When Riccardo and Amelia are caught in a harmless dalliance — their affair is strictly platonic — Renato furiously joins the conspirators in their murderous cabal, which is to occur at Riccardo's ball. Sweet and utterly selfless to the end, the dying Riccardo, amid the gaiety, forgives Renato.

HGO favorite, tenor Ramón Vargas, sings Riccardo (a.k.a. Gustavus) as if possessed. He's never sounded better, and he effortlessly imbues his royal character (perhaps the nicest, sweetest king in all opera) with languid phrasing, impeccable technique and charmed acting. Charismatic contralto Ewa Podles plays witch Ulrica, the opera's real plum role with her mysterious incantations and prophecies; her uniquely rich, resonant voice is dark and honeyed as a cask of brandy. Podles's monumental sound is one of the wonders of the world. The "pants role" of Oscar, Riccardo's page, is deftly turned by soprano Lyubov Petrova, who blithely tosses off her coloratura fireworks cavorting à la Dietrich in white tie, top hat and tails. Baritone Carlo Guelfi, as Renato, brings plenty of passion and cuckolded grief to his showstopping vengeance aria "Eri tu." Only recent HGO Studio grad soprano Tamara Wilson, whose powerful voice fills the cavernous Wortham Theater, lacks vocal distinction and flavor in the role of Amelia. There's not much shading between her doleful prayers and ardent love declarations; everything just sounds big — as did her curtain call, which was greeted by a thunderous ovation.

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