Sarah Jessica Parker in the 1995 production; no BTF photos available
Sylvia is a play about a dog, a man and their wife. Greg finds Sylvia, a stray dog, probably a mixed breed consisting of part golden Labrador and part Poodle. He brings her back to his New York City apartment where she cavorts around like a street kid released in a candy store, or a mistress allowed to see her loverís wifeís rooms. Kate, Gregís wife returns home and the story grows tense. Over the course of the next few months everything changes for this trio as Sylvia become more and more the reason for tension between Greg and Kate and Sylvia also begins to grow into the final stages of her puppydom, achieving her first heat and all that follows. Kate becomes increasingly hostile to both her mate and the mutt.
Those are the seeds of a hilarious comedy on the Fitzpatrick Main Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Groupís location in Stockbridge, MA (formerly the Berkshire Theatre Festival, lest you get too confused, that historic old Berkshire Casino building on routes 102 and 7). This play is not your usual Gurney WASP play about family and responsibility and such. This is a play about your family, or my family. Itís a comedy about what happens when a reasonably responsible man, whose children are grown and living away, reacts emotionally, responds with his heart rather than his head, to an adorable and adoring pet. Everything changes.
In Anders Catoís vision the dog makes even more of a difference than usual. The director keeps his Sylvia in constant motion, even when standing still. Her movement may be canine, but her more wanton ways of expressing anything even remotely sexual are definitely trash, tramp and street-corner pick-up. Catoís Sylvia is much more feline than canine and yet no one who has had a female dog would ever deny that things are too much different from this Sylvia. His best comic moments, as a director, come from the other three actors on stage, but his specifically controlled dog-actress is always the impetus for the others' physical quirks, right down to the twitches experienced by the Society woman, Phyllis, from Vassar.
Cato is fortunate to have a superb cast willing to comply with his directorial needs. Jurian Hughes is a wonderful Kate. As the left-out, over-powered, wingless wife she struggles with Sylvia, both with her influence on her husbandís behavior and with the dog herself. Slender, with sharp features, she manages to hold her own in all of her scenes. Like her husband she can carry on a reasonable conversation now and then with Sylvia and when she does there is something oddly choked up about it. The overtones of a wife begging a mistress to release her husband cannot be missed in Hughes' performance. We see this situation at times through her eyes and she does see things in exactly this way.
David Adkins plays Greg, the man who is a God, if not THE God, to Sylvia. Here is an actor who can downplay and at the same time play-up this aspect of being the object of hero-worship. The subtleties in his work in this role are remarkable. A smile, a raised eye-brow, a shift of point of view all add up to immense and sometimes over-riding reactions. Adkins makes much ado about adoration. When Sylvia announces "You saved my life," and begins to sing "Nearer my God to thee..." it is Adkins who makes this funny through his body language and tone of voice.
The actor Walter Hudson plays the triple roles of Tom (owner of a large dog who rapes Sylvia late in the play), Phyllis (the Vassar Girl grown WASPish), and Leslie (a gender-challenged therapist). He plays all three of them spectacularly. He, on opening night, received an ovation on his final exit and that was as it should have been. His work, complete with palate-challenged pwonounciation, got an ovation. His work deserved it.
The role of Sylvia has been taken by Rachel Bay Jones. Vulnerable and human she creates a character who is perfectly canine in movement, reaction and rest time. She is vulgar without being offensive, rude without being disparaging. She can crawl into a vagrant lap with the same ease that she uses in sprawling on the floor or trashing the sofa. If youíve ever owned a dog, you know that the dog really owns you and that is exactly what happens when Ms. Jones meets Sylvia.
Thereís too much fun, too much laughter and too much pathos in this silly little comedy and too much of all that is too pertinent to the storyline to be given away here. Though for me the scene where Sylviaís last days are revealed was too close to my own recent experience with my pet dog, it was sensibly and sensitively played even if it is a departure in style and breaks the flow of an otherwise well-made play.
You donít have to love dogs to enjoy this play, but you should have some personal attitude about them for all that. So, pack up your dog hostility and leash it and bring it along to this theaterís excellent home season opening play.
Sylvia plays at the Berkshire Theatre Groupís Stockbridge location between Routes 102 and 7 through July 30. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-298-5576.