REVIEW: “Sylvia”—JD Theatricals @ Costa Mesa Playhouse
Updated: Mar 25, 2022
Love and Laughter "Unleashed!"
Empty-nesters Greg and Kate have finally got a place in the city and delivered the last kid to college. Greg hates his job and falls out with the boss. Kate blooms in a long-delayed career...
Can you say, Mid-Life Crisis?
In collaboration with Costa Mesa Playhouse, JD Theatricals (who had closed their Attic Community Theatre location in Santa Ana eighteen months ago due to the COVID crisis) presents their first show back before a live audience —“Sylvia,” a play by A.R. Gurney (Pulitzer Prize Nomination — “Love Letters”), directed by Kathy Paladino (“The Gin Game;” “Titanic”), and performing at CMP from November 19th through December 12th.
“Sylvia” is a love story, of course, or at least a story about a man’s relationship with one of those magical canines people in stories so often meet, just when they’re at a troubling crossroads in life. It’s an odd little piece focused on a middle-aged man and his obsession with a stray dog that adopts him in Central Park. Greg’s devotion to her, to the dog Sylvia, challenges his decades-old marriage in exactly the way a conventional mid-life affair might – except in this case, the other female lives in the couple’s home and pees on their floor.
Gina Garrison (“Witness for the Prosecution”) plays Kate as the wife who sees a bad thing coming down the pike but can’t get out of the way. She doesn’t throw many haymakers but when she does, the stunning and stately Ms. Garrison packs the same sardonic punch of another classy broad, Myrna Loy.
Her objections to bringing a dog into a New York apartment are in fact reasonable, and her frustration that Greg doesn’t recognize them is palpable. Ms. Garrison plays English teacher Kate as tightly wound, but allows herself a few moments to showcase the daffiness she otherwise keeps buttoned up and belted in. She creates a sympathetic, likable character out of a role that could easily be seen as an antagonist – not easy to do, but she makes it look easy.
George Illes (“Arsenic and Old Lace”) is a glove-like fit for the moony, diffident Greg, who puts across his character’s amiable nature — and his goofy infatuation with his new “friend” — with considerable warmth. He makes Greg’s half-understood bumbling through this climacteric period of his life, ignoring his wife for “the other,” almost forgivable. Still, Greg’s story would be nothing short of commonplace if not for the object of his obsession and our affection — Sylvia.
Victoria Serra’s (“Harvey”) Sylvia is a scampering, simpering fidget of a dog. If she was a person, she surely would be diagnosed with ADHD. If you have ever lived with a dog, played with a dog, even walked a dog, you see Ms. Serra’s got every note right.
The schtick of the play is that Greg and Kate, like all pet owners, anthropomorphize their animal. They speak to Sylvia like a person and they imagine her responses as more or less logical and grammatical. Dressed in pigtails, denim shorts, fuzzy sweater, ankle warmers and a collar, her jumbles of blond hair spilling out like dog ears, there’s something sunshiny and genuinely irrepressible about her that transcends any species categories. How could anyone not love Sylvia?
Meanwhile, Sylvia goes about being very much a dog — although a speaking dog who makes no bones about what she thinks and how she feels about things. The relationship between Greg, Sylvia, and Kate soon takes on many aspects of a love triangle, although Kate is at first the only one who really understands what is happening. Her husband sees no problems with having a dog in a small New York City apartment. She sees nothing but. Of course, in the end, as all romantic comedies should, love wins out. But it’s a close race in determining whose love for whom will win.
To put it more succinctly — "Sylvia," on some levels, is a show about a guy going through a downturn in his life, who takes up with a dog and comes to see that walks in the park and loving another creature brings him more happiness than another stressful day in the office. But Sylvia the dog is also a metaphor for “the other woman.” Greg's wife, Kate (as we’ve already found out), is no fan of the pretty canine nor its influence on her husband. But Greg and Sylvia's relationship is really the main bowl of kibble, and as their bond grows stronger, there may be times when you find yourself thinking (between the uproarious laughter, of course)…Hey, am I intruding here?
Let's concede that dogs do actually compete for human attention, and that they can also mess up a marriage. In this case, a good chunk of "Sylvia" plays out as a kind of middle-age male fantasy. Rather than deal with the professional spouse, it's so much easier to hang with the subservient and unchallenging pet, all youthful sweetness and ego-massaging delight.
Ms. Serra, an excellent comic actress, finds herself constantly playing up that quality — the role is, in essence, "I love you," "I love you," "I love you a tiny bit less for just a second," "I now love you some more." She navigates cleverly through the more buttoned-down aspects of the role artfully — her tail-wagger is a detailed set of observations, and her crotch nuzzling, couch laying, sitting, begging and barking are all executed with amusing aplomb.
Sylvia denies all knowledge of the puddle behind the chair, she looks at Greg with aloof distain when he urges her to “roll over.” Coming back from a walk she announces she’s got to “check her messages” as she lays her lovely nose on the carpet and sniffs with Sherlock-esque determination. There is no curbing this dog!
The fourth member of the cast, Angel D. Watson (“A Piece of My Heart”), plays three very different roles – and plays them all extremely well. There is the fellow dog owner that Greg meets in the park (you have to look really hard), one of Kate’s high society girlfriends (who ends up getting her leg abused by our title character), and an androgynous marriage counselor with OCD that the couple visits. I wasn’t quite sure who fidgets the most, her or the dog. Ms. Watson makes them all distinct, excruciatingly funny, and believable, using different voices and clothes to set the characters apart. A very nice show of versatility indeed!
The set, designed by Jim Huffman, consists primarily of Greg and Kate’s apartment, with a wonderful view of the New York skyline pictured on the back wall. The front of the stage doubles as Central Park and house right is a simple one desk which serves as the counselor’s office. Simple but attractive — and with no complicated set changes needed, it allows the play to move along briskly.
Assisting Director Paladino is Jackie Melbon; Technical Director is Tyler Neal; Stage Manager is Marty Miller; Set Design is by Jim Huffman; Projections are by Victoria Serra; Musical Arrangements are by Erik Przytulski; Props/Board Ops are by Renee Anderson; Lighting Design is by Kaitlyn Campbell and Jackson Podgorski; CMP Liaison by Steve Endicott; and Photography by Stephanie Garrison.
The play maintains a nice balance between laugh-out-loud comedy and a tender look at the importance of love in the modern world. While it could easily be played very cartoonishly, Director Paladino brings out both aspects of the play, making for an unusually rich performance. With all four actors delivering excellent performances, area theater-goers should make every effort to see this one.
"Sylvia" is very much an adult comedy, with some sexual references and frequently salty language — mostly from the dog, who expresses herself very directly and without filters. Parents might want to use discretion with younger children. But if you have ever loved a pet, it is almost impossible not to feel moved by the interspecies romance of Greg and Sylvia or to tear up when they all sing “Every Time We Say Goodbye” (the dog sings too, by the way).
"Sylvia" opened Friday, November 19th and continues its run through Sunday, December 12th. Performance times are Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 and Sunday afternoons at 2:30. There will be no performance on November 26th, but an added matinee on November 27th. Tickets are $22 general admission and may be purchased at: https://costamesaplayhouse.com/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Stephanie Garrison