The continuing adventures of Beau Yarbrough

Studio’s ‘Sylvia’: howlingly funny

Thursday, April 24, 1997, 0:00
Section: Awards,Journalism

Virginia Press Association

This is one of three Potomac News reviews that won me a first place Virginia Press Association award in the Critical Writing category for medium-size newspapers in January 1998.

Skip to the end of this review. Find the phone number for tickets to “Sylvia” at the Studio Theater. Call it. Buy some tickets. Go. Trust me.

You haven’t called yet, have you? Fine. Read the rest of the review first, but don’t call the Potomac News in a huff if the tickets are all sold out by the time you finally do call.

“Sylvia,” to snatch an ad slogan from the television world, is must-see theater.

This smart, funny four-person play spotlights the stray dog Manhattanite Tom brings back from a walk in Central Park one day, after having yet another fight with his boss.

Sylvia and he make an immediate connection, and she’s the first person in his life in a long time to give him unconditional love, without the Machiavellian manipulations present in so many of his other relationships.

Oh, yes, Sylvia is a person, brought to hilarious life by Sarah Marshall, last seen as Oliver North’s maniacal devil-on-the-shoulder in the Signature Theater’s “Three Nights in Teheran.”

Part of the fun is that the characters are able to converse with Sylvia, fleshing out the human-canine relationship quite nicely:

“I love you, Greg!”

“I know, Sylvia, but sit.”

“Gladly, Greg.”

Marshall bounds around the stage with convincingly canine body language and a refreshing lack of human modesty.

While Greg finds Sylvia to be just the right thing for his midlife crisis, his wife Kate, sees things differently. She’s just beginning an ambitious new career adding Shakespeare to the middle school curriculum, and doesn’t think a dog fits into their lifestyle.

Greg and Kate have passed their “doggie years,” as Kate puts it, with their kids in college and their home in the suburbs traded for a chic in-town apartment. But Greg, who increasingly feels his job isn’t “real,” finds Sylvia speaks to a deep-seated need in him.

“A man and his dog is a sacred relationship,” a fellow dog owner on Central Park’s Dog Hill tells Greg. “What nature hath put together, let no woman put asunder.”

“I feel like I’m up against something that’s gone of for hundreds of thousands of years,” Kate says, “Ever since the first wolf came out of the woods and hunkered down next to a caveman by the fire.”

Kate and Sylvia circle each other warily throughout the play, each trying to get the upper hand in their tug-of-war for Tom’s soul.

“I want you to know that all you are is a male menopausal moment,” Kate tells the canine at one point, not inaccurately. The question, of course, is whether Sylvia’s appearance marks a sea change in Greg’s life.

Kate is determined that this, too, shall pass. Sylvia, on the other hand, is determined that she’s here to stay. Their battle takes up the rest of the play, and draws in innocent bystanders and consumes the marriage, threatening to break it apart.

Although “Sylvia” is charming and often cute, the dog is, well, earthy, and the play isn’t necessarily family fare.

“Nice crotch here, nice crotch!” she announces as a visitor struggles to get the dog away from her lap. “This is just my way of saying ‘hello!'”

Scatological humor, a fact of life in the doggie world, also gets some play.

“Excuse me, I have to go check my messages,” Sylvia says at one point, then scampers off to sniff a telephone pole.

Of particular note is a cryingly funny scene where Sylvia spots a cat and launches into a profanity-strewn invective that would make a Navy SEAL blush.

Families sensitive to foul language or doggie romance might want to stay away. But it’s all very much in character for the dog, and Sarah Marshall gives an award-worthy performance.

In any other play, J. Fred Shiffman, who plays a trio of characters, would have stolen the show. He morphs from book-quoting dog owner in the park, to Phillis, a Vassar classmate of Kate’s, to the ambiguously gendered marriage counselor Leslie. Shiffman seems to be channeling Carol Burnett, making all his characters funny and memorable in their own right.

Almost another performer is the clean, even austere set, especially the furniture that moves on and offstage seemingly by magic, thanks to near-invisible tracks hidden in the wooden floor.

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