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

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