Man's Best Friend

To write a play in which a dog is a pivotal character and then to have that dog played by an actor is either very brave or very stupid. In the case of A.R. Gurney's Sylvia, it's a little of both. Premiering last spring on Broadway, Sylvia is a nutty take on Gurney's version of WASP America, and on the crises peculiar to 20-year-old marriages and middle-aged men. A midlife crisis is not an especially inventive premise for a play, but having a lively actor bounce around the stage in knee pads and a dog tag is. And what works magic in the Alley's current production of Sylvia is Melissa Bowen's comic, delightful rendering of how a dog thinks and, more important, how deeply a dog loves her owner.

The play opens on a married couple's sparsely elegant living room, when husband Greg (Edmond Genest) bursts in with Sylvia the dog in tow. He speaks to her with the kind of silly love talk that dog people are prone to: "You have beautiful eyes," he tells her, and goes on to praise her cute hindquarters. As Sylvia, Bowen sniffs out her new surroundings, asks if she can sit on the couch and lavishes Greg with dog love: "I think you're God," she says adoringly. Having found her in the park, Greg is smitten in the way only a dog person can be, and Genest honestly portrays how Sylvia is given every opportunity to work her way into Greg's daily routine: walks, kibble time, ball time and trips to the groomer.

All this, of course, makes Greg's wife Kate (Annalee Jeffries) a bit insane. A practical woman, Kate has raised children and sent them off to college, moved to the city and is ready to start a career of her own. A dog, especially a dog that utterly commands her husband's attention, is not a part of the master plan -- and Kate is a woman with a plan. She is also a typically hardened Gurney gal, but Jeffries plays the role with a determined finesse, tossing off lines of Shakespeare (Kate's an English teacher) and endlessly brushing Sylvia's hair off the couch.

Sylvia has all the earmarks of an Alley production. The stage business is fluid and well thought out, and the actors are impeccably prepared, if occasionally stiff when it comes to Greg and Kate's thinly drawn marriage. What makes director Joe Brancato's production work best are the multitudinous bits that have to do with the dog: Sylvia getting her leash wrapped around her legs, Greg pulling Sylvia's "front legs" up to dance with her and, on the human side, Jeffries's horror in finding the occasionally unpleasant evidence of a dog's presence.

This being a Gurney play about tightly wrapped and well-educated white urbanites, it's not surprising that Greg and Kate aren't especially full characters, and thus, the second act -- traditionally the meat of the story -- is more forced than it is genuine. Greg is in love, Kate is angry and Genest and Jeffries do what they can with the limitations of the material. The play, however, fails to answer its own questions: Will the marriage survive? Will Sylvia be allowed to stay?

Perhaps it's for the best that we don't dwell too long on Kate and Greg, as the audience is far more entertained by Bowen's antics: rubbing herself all over the couch after a trip to the doggie beauty parlor and falling in love with the neighborhood stud, Bowzer. Audiences will remember Bowen as Amanda in the Alley's production of The Food Chain, and will find her performance here more nuanced and more entertaining.

It's unlikely that Sylvia will endure as long as Gurney's other writerly forays into upper-class Protestant America, but for the moment, and for anyone who has known the love of a good dog, it's a fine theatrical romp.

It's difficult to describe just how different Infernal Bridegroom Productions's version of Richard Foreman's unusual play, Eddie Goes to Poetry City, is from Sylvia. Like Gurney, Foreman is a New York City writer/ director. Unlike Gurney, Foreman's following is concentrated in that city's famed alternative mecca, Greenwich Village, where theater patrons that would consider an evening spent with A.R. Gurney unbearable punishment. So finely honed is Foreman's sense of artistic mission, he insists his work is only right when he directs it.

If the mere mention of alternative theater and Foreman's ilk leaves you feeling as though you should avoid the play, IBP's production of Eddie Goes to Poetry City will surprise you in a number of ways. In this accessible and intellectually vigorous production, Eddie is a countercultural Everyman, and his turmoil is imaginatively played out in a terrifying evening at the Zocalo Compound.

Eddie Goes to Poetry City doesn't have a narrative structure; instead, we follow Eddie through a variety of disconnected decisions that lead to bizarre rituals for which Eddie, and the audience, are unprepared. Set in a grungy office, the play casts a doleful glance on the modern workplace: Papers are strewn about recklessly, a large portrait of a skull glowers menacingly in one corner and various pieces of ragtag office furniture create an environment of drudgery that is fenced off from the audience with a railing. It is grim decor, and it is an appropriate backdrop for our guy Eddie, who is paralyzed by the multitude of choices that arise in even the most mundane decisions.

Played by Jim Parsons, Eddie is a wretched mess. A guy who questions his decision to walk across a room, he is overpowered by an omniscient voice and scurries to escape making decisions by increasingly neurotic means. "Try using your head like a bicycle," one of Eddie's advisors tells him. "That could be interpreted in different ways," he replies, horrified by the possibilities. In that moment, Parsons shrivels into himself, angling his head back and forth in search of the elusive answer to his questions.

One of the play's central questions is whether or not Eddie will ever get to the promised land of Poetry City, that place where "poetry melts language." In the meantime, his attentions are vied for by both Marie (Shelley Calene), a vixen, and Estelle (Tamarie Cooper), a no-nonsense officemate. Marie tries to entice Eddie by having him lick blood off her knee, and Estelle counters by practically raping him. In those moments, Foreman takes well-worn dramatic moments -- the seduction, the hazing -- and twists them into dark parody.

Greg Dean's direction vividly underlines the hopelessness of anyone trying to assimilate into society. General displacement is illustrated by the actors' jerky, stylized movements, occasionally highlighted with a strobe light. The effect is something like a '60s vintage version of hopping, popping white boys. What makes this production of Eddie Goes to Poetry City so frightening is not that everyone has a nasty agenda for Eddie, but that everyone in the play has a nasty agenda for everyone else. Sitting in the semi-darkened audience is much like reliving one's "naked at work" nightmare, over and over.

Parsons delivers a virtuoso performance as the gangly fool, and the rest of the play's cast shifts beautifully from the terse to the hilarious. Most notable is Tamarie Cooper as the crusty Estelle, who rushes in periodically to announce "office party!" -- resulting in everyone torturing Eddie in some inventive new way. Shelley Calene is sinuous and coy as Marie, and particularly good in her tiara scene, while as Eddie's doctor, Charlie Scott is piercing and cruel.

As is often the case with fools, Eddie reveals a disquieting wisdom by the end of the play. After discussing his long-awaited departure to Poetry City, Parsons pauses before educating his torturous colleagues about their philosophy: "It does not center continuously on the human spirit." Such a truth seems to hover only for a moment before Foreman's main character returns to his pattern of indecision and regret. The metaphor is a rich one for theater, where the pleasure of the experience is often lost as we step outside.

Sylvia plays through November 24 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-9341. Eddie Goes to Poetry City plays through November 23 at Zocalo Theatre, 5223 Feagan, 524-2932.