Sylvia: A Shaggy Dog Tale With a Big Slobbery Kiss

The set-up:

"You never say the things to me you say to her, like...you're beautiful...or I love you."

The "you" is harried husband Greg (Wayne White), going through mid-life crises. The accusing "me" is neglected wife Kate (Ruth S. McCleskey), who knows a rival to her affections when she sees one. The other woman, the "her," is a real bitch, Greg's new dog Sylvia (Renata Smith). She's come into the household and upset everything, including making a mess on the living room floor. Greg has found a new spark in life. Sylvia has fanned his flame.

A.R. Gurney's bouncy little bauble of a comedy, now playing at Company OnStage, opens its 34th season with a big slobbery kiss. It's a real shaggy dog tale. If you have a dog, or any pet at all -- even one of those stinky little cats that Sylvia abhors -- then this play will be your chew toy. (I'd say catnip, but Sylvia might bite.) If you're going through marital troubles, however, watch out; Gurney will rub your face in it. Of course, you'll laugh while he punishes you.

The execution:

Gurney writes about people of a certain social status who find themselves in the throes of comic crisis better than any living playwright (Mrs. Farnsworth, The Cocktail Hour, The Grand Manner). Here he tamps down the rifts and plays up the riffs. The play is as warm and cuddly as a favorite blankie.

What sets this far above the ordinary is that Gurney writes Sylvia as a young attractive girl, which gives the dog a lively temperament as both temptress and perky puppy. She's the physical embodiment of what Greg sees in her. She talks, like a dog would if she could, and the others talk back to her. It's terribly clever and a lot of fun.

No wonder Kate feels threatened by this nubile female plopped down in her house who so easily reroutes her husband's affection. Smith deserves a heaping bowl of Kibbles, or a filet, perhaps, for her lovely performance. We first met her fresh from rescue as a grunge teenager, with torn jeans and wayward sweatshirt, with two ponytails draped on each side of her head like beagle ears. She scratches and sniffs, jumps on and off the couch, and circles around before she plops down, frisky as can be. Later, after a trip to the groomers, she gets a pink poodle skirt and leotard top. By the end of the play, she's outfitted in glamor mode with little black dress, hair up, and black patent pumps. As Greg would say, she's gorgeous.

The other kooky aspect in the comedy is the triple role of Tom, Phyllis, and Leslie, all played by the same actor (Jim Allman). Tom is Greg's dog run buddy, all macho bluster who knows all the answers, except when he doesn't. In his scenes, he's always reading some self-help book whose spurious advice is usually wrong.

Phyllis is Kate's waspy school chum who can't find the charm in a pup who jumps up and humps her leg. Sylvia triggers all sort of hilarious confessions out of Phyllis about her husband's obsession with his pet -- a goldfish.

Allman stops the show with his obtuse Phyllis, perfectly costumed and bewigged. In the last act, Leslie is Greg and Kate's marriage counselor whose gender identity problems have a couch life of their own.

Greg finds Sylvia running lose (or did Sylvia find him, as she says later to yank his chain), and it's immediate love at first sight. We feel the same way about this play. Directed with easy flair by Janet Hansen, she adds a surprisingly deft touch with musical interludes between scenes nimbly played by pianist Gary Gillispie. When Kate is waiting at the airport to leave on a business trip and Greg is anxious about leaving Sylvia at home alone, the trio breaks into the Cole Porter cocktail bar classic, "Every Time We Say Goodbye." It's a lovely, bittersweet moment that Gurney would applaud.

The verdict:

The old showbiz maxim, Never share a scene with children or dogs, doesn't work in this case. Not when the dog is so adorable, and the play so tail-waggingly good. Throw everyone a bone. Four paws for Company OnStage.

A. R. Gurney's snappy little play about canine highs and marital woes runs through December 15 at Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square. Purchase tickets online at companyonstage.org or call 713-726-1219. $18.

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