by CLARK GROOME
He hates his job. The kids are grown. His wife has a busy professional life. With that profile, Greg is ripe for an affair. He has one. With a dog named Sylvia.
It’s not kinky or weird, mind you. He just falls in love with the stray that follows him home from Central Park one day. Alas, wife Kate doesn’t share his view of Sylvia. In fact, she becomes jealous of all the attention Greg lavishes on his new friend.
What she doesn’t realize for a long time is that Greg’s desire to have Kate love Sylvia is an attempt to share, to bring the two together in a new way now that the kids are out of the house.
How does she finally figure it all out? Why Sylvia tells her, of course. Say what?
In “Sylvia,” the A.R. Gurney play that is kicking off The Act II Playhouse in Ambler’s 2011-2012 theater season (where it’ll be through Oct. 2), Jessica Bedford plays Sylvia in a performance that is both human and doglike. While this may sound a little silly, the conceit actually works.
After just a few minutes Bedford’s Sylvia becomes a dog. Gurney’s masterful writing and Harriet Power’s generally sure-handed direction create a character that is almost instantly believable as the play’s canine focus. Scenes in a dog park, on an evening stroll when she encounters a cat and after Sylvia has been spayed are particularly affecting and hilarious.
Gurney’s play is, like much of his work, slightly off-kilter. As the American stage’s preeminent chronicler of the ethnic strain known in these parts as the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP), he really knows his characters and the foibles which so many of them demonstrate.
In truth, “Sylvia” is something of a one-note joke. Ultimately — because of the charming nature of its story, the craft of its author and the fine Act II production — it wins over the audience in much the same way Sylvia finally conquers Kate.
In addition to Bedford’s title character, this mounting features the inestimable Greg Wood as Greg. Wood seems to have been born to play this part, but that’s always the case when he’s on stage. The fine Mary Elizabeth Scallen is the part-confused, part-angry and part-hurt Kate.
Paul Felder is in the tripartite role of a macho dog owner Greg gets to know at the dog park, Sylvia’s old Vassar pal Phyllis and an androgynous shrink named Leslie. Felder’s various roles could steal the show if not handled with the aplomb shown here. He shows great restraint in characters that easily could tempt a lesser actor to go over the top.
Power stages the entire affair in an elegant production that features Dirk Durossette’s handsome set, James Leitner’s evocative lighting, Rosemarie McKelvey’s spot-on costumes and David O’Connor’s affecting sound design.
“Sylvia” is another example of Pete Gurney’s ability to deal with life in the Yuppie lane. WASPs are quirky and diverse, just like the rest of society. Each time Gurney writes, we see more of that diversity.
He also has the ability to write with wit and wisdom. If “Sylvia” looks to be a one-note samba at times, it is always beautifully danced.
For tickets to “Sylvia,” playing through Oct. 2 at the Act II Playhouse in Ambler, call 215-654-0200 or visit www.act2.org
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