— Pippa Mackie, Mike Stack. David Cooper
Gateway Theatre’s season-opener, Sylvia, marks the company’s inaugural production under its new Artistic Director, Jovanni Sy, who succeeds long-time Gateway AD Simon Johnston. Johnston has carefully cultivated his Richmond audience, developing Gateway’s programming by following Bill Millerd’s hugely successful Arts Club model: easily digestible populist entertainments sprinkled with more challenging plays and new work from local writers.
If building capacity and pleasing the audience are the goals, Saturday night’s enthusiastic full house suggests that Sy would be wise to continue along this same path.
American playwright A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia, a clever sitcom dressed up as a serious comic play, was a minor hit on Broadway in 1995, starring Sarah Jessica Parker before she became famous for Sex and the City. The play might have been called Rex and the City if the title character were male, but Sylvia is a female dog. Some might say she’s a bitch.
We’re in the New York condo, handsomely designed by Lauchlin Johnston, of Greg (Mike Stack) and Kate (Lisa Bunting), empty-nesters who have recently moved to the city. Their kids have gone off to college, Kate has gone back to work teaching Shakespeare to junior high schoolers, and Greg toils at a Wall Street job he hates.
One day Greg brings home a stray he found in the park. Sylvia is a cute mutt and Greg falls hard for her, but Kate values their independence and doesn’t want a dog shedding on the couch and piddling on the floor. Greg convinces Kate to give it a few days, but meanwhile he becomes more and more infatuated with Sylvia until their marriage becomes the issue. Just how long will Kate put up with a canine rival? And will Greg choose his dog over his wife?
Greg and Kate’s marital problems and Greg’s mid-life crisis prove less interesting than Sylvia herself, played by a human (Pippa Mackie) with the convention that she and Greg and Kate can speak to each other in human language. “I love you,” Sylvia tells Greg when he first brings her home, indicating the kind of loyalty that makes dog owners so passionate about their pets. “I think you’re God.”
Much of the fun of the play comes from the physicality of the dog-actor, and director Johnna Wright gives Mackie lots to do: jumping on the furniture, dragging her bum across the floor, sniffing people’s privates. Greg scratches Sylvia’s belly and she vibrates with pleasure. Greg waxes philosophical and she licks her crotch. There’s a very funny bit where Sylvia goes after a cat under a car.
Sylvia is sometimes vulnerable, worried that she’ll end up in the pound or worse. But most of the time she’s bratty like a rebellious adolescent daughter, or brazen like a mistress who doesn’t care if his wife knows about the affair.
Greg becomes obsessed with her as if she were in fact The Other Woman. When Sylvia goes into heat and does it with Bowser in the park, Greg is the crazy jealous lover. When he sees Kate off to a conference, Greg dreams of Sylvia lying sinuously at home on the couch, waiting for him, leading to a wonderful triangular moment when all three sing Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye.” Eventually Greg and Kate end up seeing a marriage counsellor (Daniel Arnold, who also plays Bowser’s master and a female friend of Kate’s).
In the way of all good comedies—and unlike real life which this play resembles only very slightly—things will, we know, somehow work out. Every dog may not have its day but Sylvia will surely have her way.