To hear playwright A.R. Gurney tell it, the thing about dogs resembling their owners is also true in the reverse. That’s part of the storyline behind Gurney’s Sylvia, the current mount at Carlsbad’s New Village Arts – after finding his Lab-French poodle mutt Sylvia in a New York park, character Greg feels a renewed connection with nature and the things in life that outweigh his ho-hum lot as a financial trader, and he has pepperpot Sylvia, undyingly grateful for her rescue, to thank for it.
Meanwhile, there’s no love lost between Sylvia and Kate, Greg’s painfully button-down teacher wife, whose new role as an empty-nester (the kids are away at college) leaves her with no time for anything but her work – and as push comes to shove, she’s just about to admonish Syl not to let it hit her. But as we watch Samantha Ginn’s hilarious, enormously physical turn as the title character, we note there’s not a lot that directly shapes the flap between Greg and Kate over Sylvia’s place in the household. The couple’s funny and stuff, but the shifts in their personalities too often unfold behind the other’s back, more often than not leaving Ginn’s gargantuan effort hanging.
Does that make this Sylvia a bad show? Certainly not. In fact, all four performers have some outstanding moments as Gurney touches the play’s bigger issues (seems Kate might be nursing a taste for booze, and she indulges it with a cross-dressing friend and probably no one else; Greg is in a full-blown midlife crisis, and his fondness for Sylvia is another reason to call in sick; the couple go so far as to seek out a marriage counselor over the flap Sylvia’s caused) – the playwright lets it be known that his title character is way more than a comic figurehead, and director Kristianne Kurner, with assistant Caroline Floto, has fleshed out those moments particularly well.
For once, the real and the ideal are one and the same.
But it sure would have been nice if the writing addressed the characters more from the front. As it is, we know they love each other very much; they’ve irrevocably dug in their heels about Sylvia and what she represents to them (the world to Greg and its spoils to Kate); they’ve peaceably assigned each other their alpha and beta roles in what until now is a fairly happy 22-year marriage; and they’ve both come to want different things for and from themselves.
So where’s the unbridled glee in those discoveries? Shouldn’t the Shakespeare-spouting Kate be over the moon about her chance to study in England? Is Greg not capable of a colossal pat on the back as he throws professional caution to the wind? There’s a lot more to these guys than Gurney lets on in Sylvia’s immediate presence – and when those moments unfold, Sylvia becomes comic relief rather than a genuine protagonist.
Meanwhile, if Ginn were an animal, she’s be more than just a dog. She’d be Sylvia herself. The nuance that makes the character’s vocalisms hers and hers alone; the hysterically ingratiating body language and sense of fun; the feel for all the stage as her character develops; designer Elisa Benzoni’s picture-perfect costume cycle for Sylvia: Ginn is positively outstanding in a tailor-made tour de force. For once, the real and the ideal are one and the same.
Daren Scott’s captured Greg’s faraway demeanor and wholesale sense of distraction; Saverina Scopelleti makes an excellent career woman in the throes of midmarriage; and Tony Houck is a hoot as hermaphroditic therapist Leslie, one of his three solid roles. Meanwhile, the tech effort is uniform enough, except that Natalie Khuen’s set backdrop doesn’t really lead anywhere.
Gurney’s heart is solidly in the right place amid this cadenced piece and its bigger-than-life themes on midlife distractions and the evolving sense of self. But smart direction and production values can take a show only far – and even as Sylvia gives us a lot of good portraiture, it lacks the basics that would have made it great. I recommend the show, especially given Ginn’s terrific turn, but not with any wholesale enthusiasm.
This review is based on the matinee performance of June 7. Sylvia runs through June 28 at New Village Arts, 2787 State St. in Carlsbad. $30-$33. (760) 433-3245, newvillagearts.org.