Dogs have no respect for social norms. Sure, they can be trained to obey, but they can't deny their true nature and they don't pass up an opportunity to do something disgusting or awkwardly hilarious, no matter how embarrassing it may be for their human companions. While dogs are naturally occurring sources of comic relief, logistics make it difficult to use their talents for the stage. Save for the occasional use as a living prop, dogs are too unpredictable. In Sylvia, playwright A.R. Gurney has found the perfect loophole: Let a human play the dog.
Set in the upper crust of New York City, Sylvia explores the life of stereotypically unhappy, middle-aged, married couple Greg (Jaison Chand) and Kate (Natasha White). Greg is increasingly discontent with his finance job and it's creating a predictable strain on their marriage. Kate is as an inner-city teacher with large goals, high hopes and an unblemished social reputation. When Greg finds Sylvia (Jenna Donahue) running loose at the park, it's love at first sight. Despite the complaints and constant discouragement from Kate, Greg quickly makes Sylvia a member of the family. While Greg's love and devotion for Sylvia quickly turn unhealthy and irresponsible, the playful mutt and uptight wife become fast enemies. A dog doesn't fit into the tidy life Kate holds so dear, not to mention Greg's attention and affections have completely shifted to the dog. It's a basic and rather typical plot in terms of the differences between men and women, the difficulties of marriage and the hilarity of dogs. Dark and bawdy humor are sprinkled throughout and, in the end, it's heartwarming, though unsurprising.
With a storyline as cloyingly predictable as Sylvia, director Dillon Savage has his work cut out for him. Add a small cast of four actors, a relatively unchanging set and a trope-filled play, and everything needs to be on point if there's any hope of holding the audience's attention. Though the entire package creates some endearing moments, certain aspects of the acting and staging prevent Sylvia from being a more memorable and engaging production.
Jenna Donahue does not have an easy role. Portraying a dog through a human lens is fraught with opportunities to shift a work of the stage to something more cartoonish. She finds a balance right out of the gate, though, and pulls it off nearly perfectly. Her energy is ever present, even when her character is just an observer of upsetting human interaction. Her mannerisms and tone are a perfect blend of dog and human, juxtaposing the ridiculousness of human behavior (jealousy, passive aggression) and the simplicity of doggie motivation (bark, eat, sleep). Dogs are happy with the basics, but humans ignore the contentment found in the simple things.
Donahue's energy is never quite matched by the rest of the cast, though the second act is much stronger than the first. Throughout the first act, Chand and Donahue appear muted and mired in the clichéd aspects of their characters. It's unclear whether this is a directorial choice meant to emphasize the presence of Sylvia's energy, but the notable improvement in the second act makes it seem so.
As the tone of the play shifts from farce to something more emotionally difficult and endearing, the skill of each actor becomes more apparent. Donahue and Chand show an intimacy and vulnerability in the second act, and it will likely bring a tear to your eye. I played it off as allergies, but I don' think anyone bought it.
Mindi Bon takes on all the additional characters, from the chummy dog owner at the park to the unsettlingly quirky and unstable marriage counselor. Bon's characters are sometimes ambiguous in terms of gender. She does an excellent job of bringing each character to life as someone completely separate from the others. Bon brings an equally dynamic energy to the stage when she is opposite Sylvia, and it should be noted that her presence during each of her scenes boosted the energy of both Chand and Donahue.
Once you get beyond the gender stereotypes of the messy and clueless husband and the jealous and buzz-killing wife, Sylvia is enjoyable. It's unfortunate that Gurney leaves the cast and crew with so many obstacles to overcome, but Dillon and the actors are eventually able to conquer the sub-par script and create something of a sweetly sad, screwball comedy.
The 25th annual Mad River Festival burns on at Dell'Arte through July 19 with the funny and earnest Mary Jane: The Musical III grappling with growing through July 5. Full schedule of events available at www.dellarte.com.
One Man, Two Guvnors opens at Redwood Curtain Theatre on July 2. This British gangster comedy runs through July 25. For more information call 443-7688.