Friday, July 30, 2010

It's a dog's life

A.R. Gurney's Sylvia -- now playing at Florida Studio Theatre -- reminds me of that gimmick in the animated movie Up -- a dog-collar device that instantly translated canine thoughts into speech. "Squirrel. I like you!" The playwright does the same thing with Sylvia's thoughts. Except that Sylvia speaks for herself.

In case you haven't heard, the title character is a dog. Not a talking dog. Sylvia is played by a young woman, (Katharine Abbruzzese). That's the gimmick.

Abbruzzese doesn't actually wearing a dog suit. She just acts like a dog. Instead of barking, her character shouts "Hay hey hey." When something threatens her, Sylvia says, "I might bite." Everything she says is at the level of instinct: "I like you; I'm scared; I'm hungry." On top of that, the playwright puts words in a dog's mouth that obviously wouldn't enter a dog's mind. Strictly for laughs. It's anthropomorphic, what can you do?

The plot: Greg (Warren Kelley) a man (in the middle of a mid-life crisis) picks up a stray dog (AKA Sylvia) at Central Park. He brings Sylvia back home to his empty-nest apartment. His wife, Kate, (Rita Rehn) doesn't want a dog. They fight. Decision: Sylvia gets to stay on a trial basis. Should she stay or should she go? The clock is ticking. Various friends and therapists are dragged into the argument. Then Greg and Kate finally decide.

Needless to say, apart from the few odd dog-haters and rogue vivesectionists in the audience, most people sympathize with the dog, root for the dog, worry about the dog. That's the dramatic tension. The play has a shameless pro-dog bias.

Along the way, the dog gimmick allows Gurney to poke fun at the eternal romantic triangle. Structurally, Sylvia resembles a play about a wife's battle with the other woman -- she just happens to be a pooch. (We're talking competition for affection, folks. This is strictly clean material.) Sylvia also takes a few playful nips at psychobabble and trendy notions about gender. Mostly, it's a play about either keeping or kicking out a cute dog.

It's warm, funny stuff. The audience was laughing its head off much of the time. Abbruzzese is a great physical comedian. Kelley, coincidentally or not, plays his character as a vulnerable puppy dog; Rehn, who's basically the villain in the piece, manages to avoid seeming like Cruella de Ville; the Harvey Korman-esque Jeffrey Plunkett plays a trio characters along a spectrum of genre. Hilarious as well. Director Kate Alexander plays it all for laughs.

As she should. Sylvia is an entertainment. It makes no big statements about man and the universe. It makes a few small statements. Some people like critters, some don't. If you let a dog into your life, your life gets better.

Aside from Cruella de Ville, who's going to argue?

Through Aug. 29
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Drawer Boy

The truth will set you free. Beautiful sentiment, but is it true? Our lives are held together with stories. Some are lies. It that bad?

Michael Healey’s "The Drawer Boy" poses these questions. It's the latest Banyan Theater Company play--basically a comedy with a few weepy, tragic elements. Carole Kleinberg directs.

The time: 1972. The place: a farm. The play's stars are what Garrison Keilor calls "bachelor farmers." They're Canadian, not Minnesotan. It's your basic "Mice and Men" arrangement. Angus (Kenneth Tigar) is brain damaged, thanks to a door that intersected with his skull in the London blitz of World War II. (He's the titular "drawer boy"--a bright architect/artist before the accident.) Now, he has basically no short term memory. Morgan (Don Morgan)takes care of him, and keeps him at peace with a bedtime story explaining the accident. And others. Then Miles(Ken Ferrigni)shows up. He's a young actor taking notes about life on the farm so he can write a play about it. Or at least a scene. Morgan obliges him -- and gigs him with various, stupid, humiliating tasks. (Washing rocks, digging corn out of cow crap, etc.)

Miles overhears Angus' bedtime story and weaves it into his play. Angus overhears, and it triggers a cascade effect in his brain. Good news: he gets a partial recovery of his short term memory. (And the inexplicable ability to quote Shakespeare.) Bad news: the false memory of Morgan's bedtime story starts unraveling. The painful, real truth is bubbling to the surface.

Kleinberg's direction is easygoing and naturalistic. She draws out the comedy without falling into sitcom territory. Ferrigni and Higgs create a nice, comic antagonism. Tigar is great in the thankless task of playing a simpleton -- a role which tends to cloyingly milk the audience for sympathy. (See "Tropic Thunder," Simple Jack.) Tigar underplays it and pulls it off.

Without spoiling the ending, the play offers a powerful look at the two-edged razor of lies, truth and storytelling. Razor image aside, it's a warm-hearted, gentle play. Don't expect a bloody, Flannery O'Conner-style epiphany. Nobody dies. There's no fight. There's no big statement.

The playwright doesn't presume to settle the question of harsh truth vs. necessary fiction. He offers his own truth: an honest, sympathetic look at decent people making hard choices.

The Drawer Boy
A Banyan Theater Company production
July 5-Aug. 1
FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota