Canine fanciers will love “Sylvia,” a midlife crisis-ridden romp through Central Park West that opened at Collaborative Theatre Project last weekend.
Intended as a melancholy, romantic comedy, “Sylvia” is also a commentary on companion animals, marriage, gender expectations and fantasy female stereotypes.
Greg and his wife, Kate, are empty-nesters free finally to live in a Manhattan apartment and enjoy the city. Kate’s career accelerates and satisfies as Greg’s declines and he becomes ever more depressed and distant. Greg is in the midst of a mid-life crisis, and Sylvia is the girlfriend in dog form who liberates his spirit, a stray who finds love and protection under her master’s care.
Benignly, blindly loyal and loving, Sylvia, played by Janeen McGinnis, becomes her master’s all-consuming obsession.
“You are God to me,” Sylvia says to Greg, played by Russell Lloyd.
“I love you,” she says, nestling close.
Greg is lost in this bizarre anthropomorphic relationship. He hears in Sylvia’s words everything he longs for to escape a regimented life and dry, passionless marriage. Though Sylvia and Greg’s relationship appears platonic, the stray dog is sexualized and Sylvia becomes the perfect companion, an inchoate sounding board that allows Greg to see the world in new ways.
Lloyd is a consummate thespian, serving as CTP director and also stepping into the stage role just days before opening when the lead fell ill. There were just a few moments in Lloyd’s performance when the lines seemed scrambled or the cues a bit off, remarkable given the situation.
A.R. Gurney’s play about a man, his dog and his wife premiered off-Broadway in 1995, when Sarah Jessica Parker played Sylvia, the stray dog that steals the show. In this CTP production, McGinnis does the same. As Sylvia, McGinnis is slavishly, slobberingly, street-wise and foul-mouthed funny, flopping about on couches, peeing on the floor, sniffing at crotches and chasing tail.
Perhaps the most understated and least sympathetic role in “Sylvia” is that of Kate, played by V. Simone Stewart. Kate is concerned at her husband’s increasingly peculiar behavior and is threatened by a dog that she says has chewed a hole in their marriage. Stewart as Kate seems judgmental and uncompromising, but for those who don’t like dogs, Kate’s role rescues the play, validating an aversion to animal hair, dog farts and canine mischief. Stewart deliberately refers to Sylvia as “Saliva” with such delightful disdain you have to laugh at each mention.
Wonderfully comical is William Coyne, who plays a Greek chorus of characters, all of whom are oddly similar in bearing, crotchety movement and moral pronouncement. The gender triptych are male, female and deliberately ambiguous, each appearance a proclamation that validates and reinforces dog-Sylvia’s role as human-girlfriend not animal-pet.
Some reviews of earlier productions in New York and elsewhere have claimed that the play was misogynistic and disrespectful of women, and some may find it so. It is not clear whether the playwright or CTP’s director intended “Sylvia” to be a commentary on women’s rights or the role of women in contemporary society, but it is so. Perhaps this point of view is an appropriate reading into the play this month as women march in solidarity for equality and human rights.
One of the play's most uncomfortable acts is when Sylvia is neutered. Not long after Sylvia comes into heat and runs off to enjoy Bowser, Greg has her spayed. Before doing so, Greg lashes out with language that is coarse and offensive, calling his dog-girlfriend promiscuous and lascivious. His jealousy and anger at the loss of Sylvia’s slavish attentions are clear.
McGinnis, as Sylvia, on the other hand is perfectly blasé in the acknowledgement of her dog-appropriate actions. After being spayed, Sylvia curls up on the floor in pain, confused and ignorant of her physical loss. Is Sylvia dog or woman, too young and naïve to understand what’s happened to her?
No matter your point of view, “Sylvia” ends well and will satisfy the thoughtful, discerning audience looking for a good laugh, a contemporary commentary on life, love, marriage — and dogs.
With the production of “Sylvia,” CTP has partnered with Friends of the Animal Shelter in Jackson County. A percentage of the proceeds from the Friday, Jan. 26, performance will benefit adoptable animals at the shelter.
Collaborative Theatre Project’s production of “Sylvia” has adult themes with lots of innuendo and street language that may delight or offend. The wheelchair accessible theater is at 500 Medford Center, across from Tinseltown and Cold Stone Creamery. Shows are set for 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturday, and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. through Feb. 11. Tickets are $25, $20 for students and seniors, and can be purchased at ctporegon.org, by calling 541-779-1055 or at the box office.
— Maureen Flanagan Battistella is a freelance writer in Ashland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.