Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Sylvia"

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note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Larry Stark


by A. R. Gurney
Directed by Joseph Zamparelli, Jr.

Asst. Director Pat Morrow
Set Design by Trix Ingram, Bill Butcher and Bob Peters
Costumes Designed by Lis Adams
Lighting Design by Rick Shamel
Sound Design By Rich Grossman and Bill Smith
Stage Manager Cathie Regan

Sylvia..................................Shana Dirik
Greg......................................Rik Pierce
Kate................................Phyllis Walters
Tom, Phyllis, and Leslie.....Brad Walters

There are places in performances of the Concord Players' "Sylvia" where, after an instant's pause, the entire audience roars with spontaneous laughter as everyone sees the joke at once. There could be no better compliment to the energy and imagination of this quartet of superb actors, and to Joseph Zampareli, Jr., their director. In their thoroughly professional hands, A. R. Gurney's cute cartoon fulfils all its laugh-provoking potential.

Here Shana Dirik plays not so much a dog, but the soul of a dog. There is the nervous exuberance that has her dashing about the stage or leaping into the wings with balletic scissor-kicks. At her first entrance she literally vacuums the rug with her nose, and the ritual pacing and circling as she settles contentedly if illegally on the couch is risible canine verisimilitude. But this is a Woman Playing a dog, and when she is in conversation with her loving master or with his dog-detesting wife, only her quirkily prehensile face retains the quicksilver antsiness that marks her as a poodle.

Rik Pierce as the ultimate dog-lover is all openness, wonderment, and infatuation. There are several "empty-nest" explanations here for exactly why an investment broker would neglect his job to the point of lay-off just to be with his dog, and Pierce blandly accepts every one of them, so long as he can keep his beloved mutt. He is openly, sincerely, gullibly empty, and oblivious to his wife's predicament.

Phyllis Walters has the difficult job of playing adorable Sylvia's nemesis yet still conveying the subtextual fact that her attitude is right and everything she says is absolutely true. Unlike her husband she has made their empty nest an opportunity to become a teacher of Shakespeare to inner-city kids successful enough to snag a grant to study teaching techniques in England --- a country that quarantines immigrant mutts for six months. In this production, her opposition to Sylvia is not brushed off as anti-dog prejudice but elevated to honest-antagonist status.

And everyone else is played by Brad Walters, who manages transitions from a macho fellow dog-lover to a totally Republican matron to a psychologist who lets patients decide his/her gender not so much with mannerisms as with pure playing style. His Tom is flatly realistic; his Phyllis has an archly mannered fastidiousness, and his Leslie is a master of the incredulous pause that makes the next phrase hilarious. He doesn't even modulate his voice much, but his wigs are awesome.

The pace and energy of this production are astounding. There are quiet moments and serious moments, but most of the time it's as though Cathie Regan the stage-manager or Joe Zamparelli himself were standing in the wings with whips and cattle-prods urging on their cast.

This became one of the most-produced plays for the past two seasons here in New England, so its success in Concord is the result of looking at a sure crowd-pleaser with fresh eyes. It remains a cartoon rather than a play; the male lead is an empty, wishy-washy wimp who believes everything he's told, and walks on stage at one point saying essentially "my wife and I had a lengthy discussion off-stage which you'll never hear in which I changed my mind 180-degrees" --- a lapse no serious dramatist should ignore. The nay-sayers in the script are all correct in their assessments of the situation, and there's an all but unplayable epilogue that reduces everything that has gone on before to irrelevance.

And yet Joe Zamparelli's breakneck-farce approach, and the swift, honest directness of his actors wins the day. It may be significant that Zamparelli doesn't own a dog, but his eye has certainly made "Sylvia" into a freshly funny new play.


"Sylvia" (till 28 November)
51 Walden Street, CONCORD

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide