Some years ago (16 to be exact), Boca Raton’s Caldwell Theatre Company mounted (no pun intended) an irresistible production of Sylvia, A.R. Gurney’s Off-Broadway hit about a Manhattanite whose blossoming love for a stray dog threatens his marriage.
Today, a celebrated company that contributed so much to South Florida since the mid-1970s has collapsed, and the Caldwell’s not-yet five-year-old, $10 million theater building is set to be sold Oct. 16 via an online auction.
Sylvia, however, is back in Boca.
This time, she’s working her canine wiles in a Boca Raton Theatre Guild production at Sugar Sand Park’s Willow Theatre. But the difference between the earlier production and this one is as striking as the contrast between cats and dogs. If the Caldwell’s version was the theatrical equivalent of a purebred, the Theatre Guild’s is an eager-to-please mutt.
A play that felt beguiling and fresh just a year after its Off-Broadway debut now seems rather absurd and, at times, unnecessarily crude. Sure, when the title character (a lab-poodle mix) goes into heat and does what doggies do, that action takes place offstage. But Sylvia, fetchingly played by Jacqueline Laggy, has quite the potty mouth, something that rubs off on her besotted owner. Gurney’s WASP sensibility goes to the dogs in Sylvia.
That touch of the absurd comes from the premise. Sylvia’s newest owner Greg (Keith Garsson), a guy in full-blown midlife crisis, is unhappy at work and unsure of what to do with himself now that the kids are grown and gone. His wife Kate (Patti Gardner) is thrilled with her new job as a junior-high English teacher, a career path she put off while raising her family. Ex-suburbanite Kate is looking forward to the culture and unencumbered excitement of life in the Big Apple. Then hubby comes home with the scraggly, flea-infested Sylvia, to Kate’s utter chagrin.
Gurney’s conceit is that both Kate and Greg can understand the anthropomorphized Sylvia. That sure helps the comedy (not to mention the audience’s comprehension), and the playwright gives the actress playing Sylvia plenty of cute, recognizable doglike action. But the idea that a guy would risk everything – his job, a so-far solid long marriage – to make his pooch the center of his universe? Not buying it.
Director Genie Croft gets funny, charming work from Laggy, whose Sylvia morphs from a bedraggled stray into a prettily groomed homewrecker. Gardner delivers a solid, earnest performance as the frustrated wife, and even dog lovers will laugh as she “slips” and calls Sylvia “Saliva.” Garsson is workmanlike as Greg, which doesn’t wring any empathy from the audience. Playing a trio of roles – the married male owner of the dog that gets frisky with Sylvia, Kate’s gargantuan Vassar classmate and a deliberately gender-ambiguous marriage counselor – Mario Betto is unconvincing, times three.