Pet Projects 

As much as Nashvillians love canines, it's no wonder they'd take to A.R. Gurney's Sylvia

As much as Nashvillians love canines, it's no wonder they'd take to A.R. Gurney's Sylvia

Sylvia

Presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre

Through Nov. 20 at TPAC's Johnson Theater

When it comes to pet activism, Nashville may well be second to no other American city. There are legions of ardent animal rescuers in our town, and stories of animal abuse can easily dominate the headlines here. We even have public debates about whether dogs should be allowed in certain parks.

What does any of this have to do with the theater arts? It all serves as an attempt to understand why two major local theater companies have chosen to present A.R. Gurney's Sylvia within five months of each other. Boiler Room Theatre in Franklin staged a competent production back in June, and Tennessee Rep opened its version last week.

Playwright Gurney, now 74, has had a successful career focusing mostly on American middle-class issues, in particular love and family. His plays are typically infused with a wry hopefulness and characterized by fanciful, creative set-ups. With his Williams College/Yale School of Drama pedigree, Gurney easily could have chosen to enter the ranks of more serious dramatists. Instead, he's a theatrical populist, best known for the somewhat schmaltzy Love Letters.

In Sylvia, a middle-aged man brings home a stray dog who essentially fills the void in his midlife crisis. Gurney's whimsy finds full expression in the foundling pooch, who can talk (even swear like a sailor) and holds strong opinions about her master, Greg, and his wife, Kate, Manhattan empty-nesters whose marriage is in transition.

Greg is having "a male menopausal moment," says Kate, who isn't happy about the interloper in their lives. If he were another kind of man, goodhearted Greg might've taken a mistress, but clearly Sylvia will do. When he returns from the dog groomer, his new "girlfriend" outfitted pretty in pink, Kate perceives serious trouble ahead. "He thinks I shit ice cream," Sylvia comments to Kate, and indeed the struggle for Greg's affection is afoot.

Director Mark Cabus' cast is generally up to the task of pulling off this thoughtful, often humorous entertainment. Boiler Room's earlier mounting lacked some of the sophistication that this new rendition captures, with Gary Hoff's colorful Upper East Side apartment set helping mightily to create the proper atmosphere. This version also gives us all of the title character's expletive-laced dialogue, which heightens the adult feel while adding some off-color laughs.

Nevertheless, with all its professional gloss, this effort has some problems. Jennifer Jewell, a genuinely talented actress, takes on the play's toughest role, that of Kate, who finds herself pitted against a talking dog who is already an instant audience favorite. Jewell's casting is superficially spot-on, but she seems chronically world-weary, when she should be more energized, ready to combat the new "woman" in her husband's life. Jewell's portrayal creates a static dynamic among the three main characters, which in turn is compounded by Cabus' merely adequate staging. The direction here is realistic enough, and bodies move around with logic, yet patches of dullness reflect a lack of any obvious comic impulse that might've further exploited the play's inherently absurd premise.

The directorial issues take center stage with the role of Sylvia. As the precocious pup, Jenny Littleton evokes chuckles, though that may have more to do with Gurney's writing than it does with her characterization. Littleton's as flighty and unpredictable as a stray dog might be in new surroundings, but she's too reserved in her portrayal of a city-wise Noo Yawk canine. She delivers sarcasm with her intelligent readings—no surprise, since Littleton is a demonstrably fine dramatic actress. But whether she's establishing her controversial presence in her adopted home, reacting aggressively to a house cat or scouting out potential sex partners during a walk through the park, Littleton's Sylvia would have benefited from a determinedly brassier sense of chutzpah. This is a gentler Sylvia than Lauri Bright gave us at Boiler Room months back, and it's not quite as vivid, nor as funny.

Richard McWilliams, making his Rep debut, is a fine Greg, lost in laid-back, dreamy-eyed idealism and effectively pondering his 40-something need for connection. In the enviable position of getting to tackle three different, instantly funny, multi-sexual roles is Bobby Wyckoff, who successfully portrays Tom, a smart-ass dog-walker in Central Park; Phyllis, a befuddled family friend; and an androgynous marital therapist, Leslie. Wyckoff plays the humor as broadly as necessary, but knows when to pull back subtly. His well-tempered performance keeps the play lively at key points when the rhythm threatens to falter.

Overall, I'd recommend Sylvia, and if the good-sized crowds that attended even the show's preview performances are any indication, the marriage between Nashville dog-lovers and this primarily lighthearted drama should make for a happy and successful union. Clearly, there are enough people in the audience who identify with Greg and are willing to overlook the Rep production's admittedly forgivable missteps.

Best of show

Nashvillians interested in turning their pup into a stage star should take note of upcoming auditions for Circle Players' production of Annie. The company is looking for candidates to play the role of Sandy, the young heroine's lovable canine pal. Dog's should be medium-size or larger build; be able to "sit" and "stay" off a leash; respond reliably to "sit" and "come" commands; and be available for the run of the show, Dec. 14 through Jan. 16. Auditions take place 2 p.m. Nov. 14 at the Nashville Humane Association. For info, phone 332-PLAY.

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