BWW Review: SYLVIA Opens Up a Dog's Mind to Reveal What Makes a Truly Loving Companion
After scoring critical and audience acclaim for her previous appearances as Sylvia, a homeless dog who adopts a lonely middle-aged man sitting on a park bench and then ingrains herself into all aspects of his life, actress Tanna Frederick has returned to the role as well as directed a new production of the play at the Odyssey Theatre in West LA. And while the audience was less than enthusiastic on the night I attended, Tanna's familiarity with the role and how to easily represent the many moods of a domesticated dog shown through from beginning to end.
In the 1995 comedy SYLVIA by A.R. Gurney, married couple Greg (Steve Howard revisiting the role he played with Tanna in 2011) and Kate (appropriately named Beege Barkette) are empty-nesters in the big city. In the opening scene, Greg and Sylvia arrive home after meeting in the park where Sylvia, a bouncy, frisky poodle mix, literally adopted Greg.
Tanna jumps up and down, running around just as a new dog inside a home would react, her nervousness and excitement leading her to smell every single inch of the place, leave a liquid deposit, and then remind her new companion over and over again how he is her God she will love and respect forever - as long as he never hits her.
But Kate is relishing her new role as an educator after finally completing her Master's degree, and does not want her freedom interrupted by having a dog in their New York apartment. To make matters worse, Kate comes to feel that she is losing Greg to his adoring new best friend who just loves to be petted, scratched, and talked to by the new love of her life.
And while Barkette is basically a bitchy, self-centered woman, lovable Greg and Sylvia's dog/human love affair is enchanting with Sylvia morphing from a disheveled mutt into a Madonnaesque dancing ball of fluff in a tutu. I especially enjoyed Sylvia's comment when she enters the dog park a few weeks later of needing to "check her messages" as she walks over to smell the park's fire hydrant. Pure truth for dogs!
Adding in three very different characters who add lots of comedy and insight into how to deal with a dog taking over your relationship is Matthew Marcy, first as a street-wise wise guy whose much larger Shepherd-mix Bowser manages to take advantage of Sylvia's first heat, with Tanna not overdoing it as Sylvia on fire, letting us see her pain after her actions lead to her neutering, complete with head cone. Marcy's warning to Greg to always remember to pay more attention to his wife and to remember that Sylvia is just a dog go unheeded. And as a new dog adopter myself, I completely understand how that can happen!
Marcy's gender-bending role as Kate's friend Phyllis, a Vassar graduate who refers to Sylvia as that DAWG, siding with Kate who relishes calling Sylvia a "bitch" for destroying her marriage. Probably one of the funniest lines is uttered by Sylvia when she first meets Phyllis and smells her, commenting on what a "nice crotch" she has. I mean, don't you wonder what dogs are thinking when they smell you that way? And when Greg calls the newly-groomed Sylvia "sweetheart," you can practically see the flames shooting out of Kate's ears!
When Marcy returns later in the play as therapist Leslie, he masters another gender-being role that realistically addresses the need of Greg and Kate to take the time to speak to each other about what is going on in their marriage. Kate realizes that perhaps it would be best to find Sylvia a new home with her new forever family - but Sylvia and Greg want none of that when Kate suggests it to them, bringing the two only closer. This imaginative twist on Greg's midlife crisis leads to lots of laughs and some thoughtful insights into the nature of love, marriage, jealousy, and dogs. And Tanna's ability to share the joy and energy of a dog longing for acceptance into a forever home will make you ready to go out and adopt your own. I hope for your sake she is just as cute and you keep her just as well-dressed!
And be sure to enjoy the many dog-themed musical selections during scene breaks, especially the show-ending "Who Let the Dogs Out?" that will have you barking your way out the door.
The hit comedy SYLVIA by A.R. Gurney and directed by and starring Tanna Frederick, produced by Henry Jaglom and The Rainbow Theatre Company, continues as a guest production at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025, through Sunday, December 18, with performances on Thurs.- Sat. at 8:00, Sun. at 3:00. Tickets are $30, students and seniors $20. For reservations, call (800) 838-3006 or online at www.sylviatheplayinla.com.
Photos by Nancy Frederick