One of the best things about the nifty production of A. R. Gurney’s Sylvia at Spring Lake Community Theatre is the curtain call. Kristine Gianna, Dan Johnson, Margaux McDaniel and Michael J. Hegarty appear together for an ensemble bow and then walk off as the well-deserved applause dies down.
The title role is the flash of the play and a solo bow would surely be met with cheers, but Ms.Gianna wouldn’t shine as she does if the others weren’t first-rate as well.
I’d seen Sylvia twice before: off-Broadway in 1996 (though not with Mary Louise Parker, who created the role) and at George Street Playhouse in ’97, the year that it was the most-produced play in America. Neither of those professional productions was as all-round good as Spring Lake’s.
Sylvia (Gianna) is a dog: part Lab, part poodle that middle-aged, bored-with-life Greg (Johnson) brings home from the park. Man and dog promptly fall in love with each other. Greg’s teacher-wife Kate (McDaniel), whose cause is introducing inner-city youngsters to Shakespeare, has no time for any dog, much less one who’s her rival. The not-so-typical triangle becomes a battle of wills between Kate and Sylvia.
Sylvia is anthropomorphized, given human characteristics. She expresses her basic needs (all of them), jumps on the furniture, sulks when spanked with a newspaper (“You don’t have to hit!”), scratches herself, licks, barks (“HEY! HEY!”) and…well, everything your own dog does (everything).
The key to Sylvia is making the ‘love story’ credible without being weird, and Gianna and Johnson accomplish that perfectly. Gianna’s an attractive young woman, and her frisky Sylvia is uninhibited and physical, but she’s all-canine throughout. Johnson’s Greg basks in her unbridled, non-judgmental affection, which may well be why God invented dogs. (“My aim in life is to please,” Sylvia says, and in the person of Gianna, she does that.)
Greg’s wife goes from outright rejection (“Where’s Saliva?”), through a classic facedown (“May the best species win!”), up to the sentimental ending. A well-acted formidable foe, Ms. McDaniel’s Kate elevates Gianna’s performance. (Throughout, the generous actors ‘feed’ one another, a particular skill. Director Alan Foster did a lot more than sit through rehearsals.)
In the play’s other gimmick, a fourth actor plays three roles: a macho dog-owner, a woman friend of Kate’s and an androgynous marriage therapist. Michael J. Hegarty more than meets the challenge. Resisting the temptation to overdo, he creates three distinct characters. (Matronly Phyllis is a treasure, here again serving the play to a tee.)
It must be noted that the play sags a bit in the second act. Sylvia isn’t perfect, but this Sylvia and her human co-stars are close.
“Sylvia” plays through this weekend: Fri and Sat at 8pm at Spring Lake Community House, Third & Madison, Spring Lake. Tickets ($28; students/seniors $26; kids $20): 732-449-4530 or at www.springlaketheatre.com