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  1. Stage

Review: Stageworks' 'Sylvia' more than the sum of its paws

TAMPA

Cecil the lion had a name and we were outraged. The Chick-Fil-A cow has none, and we laugh.

To bestow a name is to recognize that person or animal or thing. Names elevate.

That is the central premise behind Sylvia, A.R. Gurney's play at Stageworks Theatre. The two-act play directed by Karla Hartley is enjoying a return engagement, after a popular run three years ago with the same cast.

The name of the canine title character surfaces early, as soon as a husband, Greg, brings a Labrador mutt home to his Manhattan apartment. Greg's wife disapproves, and a love triangle ensues.

The dog's antics, rendered eloquently and in hilarious detail by Kari Goetz, might tempt you to categorize the play as mindless fluff, as some have.

That might sound like a smart take. Don't fall for it.

Though wrapped in a whimsical package, this play gently explores the meaning of relationships, communication, freedom and even gender. Greg, played sympathetically by Harold Oehler, is an unhappy executive, his wife Kate an English professor. Both are empty nesters who have recently left the suburbs for New York.

In so doing, an exasperated Kate laments, she believed that "the dog phase of my life is definitely over."

Goetz, a member of the Screen Actors Guild since age 8, sniffs out every part of Frank Chavez's sleek black and white set and also takes an improvisational walk through the audience. Her Sylvia is a wriggling, manipulative, endearing character with traits recognizable to any dog lover.

Elizabeth Fendrick plays Kate with admirable realism, a compassionate foil who is better at abstract reasoning than her husband. While the conflict between Kate and Sylvia is something less than razor sharp, that feels like the choice of a playwright who handles tension with a light touch.

In Sylvia, a dog does not so much create crisis as help this couple realize they were already in one. Sylvia literally leads Greg on a journey of self-discovery, during which he encounters a macho dog park philosopher, an Upper East Side socialite and an intentionally gender-neutral therapist. The deadpan seriousness with which Ricky Cona plays all three roles is one of the funniest things about Sylvia, a charming play that takes its subject matter seriously but not itself.

Greg's odyssey with Sylvia inevitably runs smack up against reality, including marriage and other problems only the humans can resolve. This production sticks the landing sweetly. The play, which opened in 1995 off-Broadway in the era before dog boutiques, packs plenty of laughs, especially in the hands of an actress with Goetz's resourcefulness.

But there is more to it than a long-running gag. For evidence, look to the play's staying power: Sylvia opens Oct. 2 for previews at the Cort Theatre, its first run on Broadway.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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