Theater: Split script

‘Sylvia’ strong, but shifting

By Charles Brousse

The Ross Valley Players’ decision to open their 87th season with A.R. Gurney’s 1995 Sylvia must have seemed a relatively safe choice. It’s a comedy, so plenty of laughs. Its main character is a dog (the furry, canine kind), to be played by an attractive young woman. Dog people will love it. Men who enjoy watching pretty young women being trained to mind their manners and not jump on the couch will love it. Women who identify with the wife when things get too cozy between her husband and his pet will love it. Sparks fly, but in the end they all get together in one happy family. Sounds great!

Yes, but …

Probably the best word to describe Gurney as a playwright is “quirky.” While he’s known as a prolific writer of  domestic comedies that feature the foibles of upper-middle-class residents of the New York/New England region—a sector he’s familiar with through family background and education—his work always has surprising twists. To use a baseball analogy, he’s a pitcher who likes to throw a curve just when you’re expecting a fastball. Sometimes it succeeds; sometimes it doesn’t.

Sylvia is a perfect example. At RVP, Keith Jefferds is the nearly burnt-out Greg, a commodities trader for a New York investment company who is propelled into a full-blown midlife crisis when management reassigns him to the money market department. While sitting on a park bench to escape a job he loathes, he is “adopted” by an adorable stray dog (played by Jannely Calmell, a recent graduate of College of Marin’s drama program) wearing a collar bearing the name  “Sylvia.” They bond immediately, but when he brings her home to their apartment, his wife Kate (Jennifer Reimer) doesn’t—to put it mildly—share his enthusiasm. After living in the suburbs for 22 years while raising their children, a job offer to introduce Shakespeare to inner-city students has provided an opportunity for them to move into Manhattan, and she isn’t about to welcome anything that may interfere with their new-found freedom.

Kate’s misgivings deepen as what began as an act of kindness by Greg expands into an obsession that threatens both his employment and the couple’s relationship. Meanwhile, Sylvia does what dogs do—sniffs the premises for possible “messages” left by other dogs, periodically leaps into her master’s arms with bursts of adoring passion, curses at the sight of a cat and rushes to join the male dogs when her hormones put her in heat. All create a ripe opportunity for humor and gentle satire.

That’s the first act. Act 2 is another story, almost another play. Gurney abruptly shifts focus from Sylvia, the vibrant dog/girl, to a series of pop psychology-laden discussions with friends and a therapist (multiple roles portrayed broadly by Jim Fye) about how Greg and Kate can repair their marriage, accompanied from time-to-time by not very profound philosophical observations about the world in general and quotations from Shakespeare. The tone also shifts as the language used by the characters becomes increasingly vulgar, marked by frequent use of the ‘f’ word, until, finally, all the dissonance dies down and a happy resolution is achieved.

As I said before, this kind of stylistic confusion is typical of Gurney. It’s as though, having  decided that writing comedy isn’t enough, he wants to demonstrate that he has both intellectual heft and the daring to season it with schoolyard slang. Whatever it was, it left the audience I sat among last weekend chuckling through Act 1, and nearly silent in Act 2.  

Still, there’s enough to savor in RVP’s strong production, effectively staged by Buzz Halsing, to make a trip out to the Barn Theater worthwhile. It’s also a nice homage to a fading playwright, whose Valentine’s Day favorite, Love Letters, may turn out to be his only lasting legacy.

NOW PLAYING: Sylvia runs through October 16 at the Barn Theater, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross; 415/456-9555;

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