Kari Goetz is doggone wonderful in Stageworks’ Sylvia.
The diminutive actress, who’s mostly been seen in Jobsite Theater productions, plays A.R. Gurney’s eponymous pup with so much canine joie de vivre, you’ll find yourself rethinking the behavior of your real pets and seeing them with enhanced clarity. Yes, your Sandy seems to be saying “I love you,” a lot of the time, and yes, your Buddy’s attitude toward cats suggests a string of angry four-letter words. Does Goetz’ Sylvia shake her butt when she’s excited to see her master? Well, so does your beloved Fifi, who also throws herself at the neighbors’ Rocky just like Sylvia does at Bowser. Whether hurling herself into the crotch of a fine-smelling stranger or walking away dazed and disheveled from a tryst with a boy dog, Goetz’s Sylvia is splendidly persuasive and, again and again, hilarious. This is just about a perfect performance.
The only problem — if you consider it one — is that the play in which she stars is two acts of insignificant fluff. What playwright Gurney (The Dining Room, Love Letters) has given us in Sylvia is a piece in which the largest question is something like, “Is it feasible to own a dog in Manhattan?” For all its talk about “biophiles” and its nod to male menopause, Sylvia is really about nothing more than the fun of seeing a human play a four-legged animal: regretfully peeing in the living room, mischievously jumping up on the pricey sofa, sitting and staying, sniffing the floor, and feeling terrible after being spayed.
As for the plot — well, husband brings home stray dog from the park, wife objects and insists the mutt leave, compromise is reached, compromise fails, fate of dog hangs in balance. There are also some comic diversions, as when Sylvia’s in heat and explains, “I just feel like fucking,” or when Husband and Wife, near the end of their tether, visit a very funny, quite irrelevantly androgynous marriage counselor. But whether the marriage succeeds or fails, whether the dog is welcomed or banished, the true center of the play is always Sylvia’s latest accomplishment: going to a dog groomer and coming back beautiful; seeing a Dalmatian and exclaiming, “Look at the size of the balls on that guy!” So the comedy’s strength is also its weakness, and if you’re not utterly charmed by Goetz — as I was — you might wonder whether you really needed to spend two hours watching this particular spectacle.
On the “yes” side — the performances of the three other actors. Elizabeth Fendrick is superb as Kate, the dog-doubting educator who’s trying to introduce Shakespeare into the curriculum of inner city junior high school students. There’s nothing cold about Kate’s antipathy to Sylvia: she just feels that with her children grown and her professional obligations paramount, there’s no room for a dog in her apartment or her marriage. As husband Greg, Harold Oehler is a delightful discovery, truly in love with besotted Sylvia, and finding a reality in her that he’s missing in his hated job as a currency trader. And then there’s Ricky Cona, who was so funny a few weeks ago in Biloxi Blues, and who shows a surprisingly ample range as three different characters: a random dog-owner who befriends Greg, a snooty former Vassar friend of Kate’s, and that Rorschach Test of a hermaphrodite, the ambiguous analyst Leslie. The play is directed by theatrical superhero Karla Hartley with confidence and panache, and, not surprisingly, she’s also responsible for the expert lighting and impeccably urban sound design.
Which brings me to Frank Chavez’s stunning black and white set, representing a posh New York apartment with a view — actually a cut-out — of the Manhattan skyline against the back wall. Imagine a white sofa on a black and white spotted rug on a black-and-white-striped floor, near bookshelves filled with white books and beneath seven empty picture frames on white walls. This is an idea of an apartment more than it is the real thing, and it’s just the right idea for this play, in which more realistic and colorful costumes — also by Chavez — express the characters with precision. What a beautiful environment for this surrealistic exercise! And what a pleasure to see real daring in a set!
Doggone it, this bit of fluff, this two-act soap bubble is fun. And it’s brilliantly put together.
See it for Goetz or just for distraction.
And think about it: If it meant something, it would be crushing.
Gender essentialism. Thumbs down.
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