Review: “Sylvia” is the doggone funniest play of the season

David Adkins and Rachel Bay Jones in BTF's production of Sylvia by A.R. Gurney. Directed by Anders Cato. Photo by Jaime Davidson.

Update: A. R. Gurney’s Sylvia is now playing on Broadway [link to show site] and stars a brilliant cast of acclaimed comedians: two-time Tony winner Matthew Broderick (The Producers, How To Succeed…), Tony winner Julie White (The Little Dog Laughed), Drama Desk Award-winner Robert Sella (Stuff Happens), and fresh from her 2015 Tony-winning performance in You Can’t Take It With You, Annaleigh Ashford as Broadway’s beloved new heroine. Below is our review of a similarly strong cast in a Berkshire Theatre Festival production. You might say this show is as frisky as ever. – LM

Years before Edward Albee wrote a play about a man falling passionately in love with a goat named Sylvia, A.R. “Pete” Gurney wrote his comedy Sylvia. It is the first offering of the season on the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Fitzgerald Main Stage in Stockbridge. In this 1995 comic masterpiece, Gurney wrote about a dog who totally seduces the attentions and affection of hard working, middle class husband in one howler of a play. Albee had good reason to honor Gurney with his own homage to anthropomorphism. (Photo above: David Adkins and Rachel Bay Jones in BTF’s production of Sylvia by A.R. Gurney. Directed by Anders Cato. All production photos are by Jaime Davidson.)

So much of Sylvia’s dialogue is a revelation, but the tricks-and-treats scene stands out. Sylvia does a trick. Greg praises her and pops a treat into her mouth.

Then he gives the command for a second trick. Sylvia replies, “I’m still eating.”

It proves the old adage that “drama is easy, comedy is hard.” Some may dismiss this glorious evening of nonstop laughs as lightweight entertainment, but beneath all the fun is Gurney’s usual focus on the fantasies and foibles of middle class life.

Getting this outrageously funny story to the stage was not easy for the acclaimed novelist and playwright, and though he is a Williams College graduate, Sylvia has never been done at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. They prefer his heavier and more serious “message” plays. That may change, but until then, bravo to Kate Maguire and the Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG) for filling in the glaring gap.

The journey of Sylvia to stage was not an easy one. Says Gurney: “It took me several years to get this play on stage because most of the theatres we offered it to felt it was insulting to women to be asked to play a dog. Ultimately Lynne Meadow at the Manhattan Theatre Club, who admitted she wasn’t nuts about dogs, had no problem with asking Sarah Jessica Parker to take a crack at it. Charles Kimbrough picked up the leash, and Blythe Danner agreed to defend the domestic tranquility. So we were off and running.”

In the BTG’s brilliant new production – which is good enough to go right back to Broadway, by the way – Rachel Bay Jones shamelessly immerses herself into the role of the shaggy seducer.

Unlike the original actor playing Sylvia, Jones admitted to me that she not only loves dogs, but had a wonderful Irish Setter for 16 years, up until last year. Watching her on stage you can see how her constant observation of her beloved dog has informed her hilarious performance.

Sylvia put the nonstop laughs on hold now and then to put the whole relationship between husband, wife and Sylvia into perspective. “I consider this play to be a variation on the plot of the menopausal married male falling in love with an enticing young girl,” Says Gurney, “only in this case, the girl happens to be an adorable stray dog named Sylvia, or “she of the woods.” The man’s affection for her costs him his job and almost his marriage. The play works best when the dog is played straight, with no attempt to be arf-arf or cutsie-poo. After all, this is first and foremost a love story and should be treated as such.”

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Director Anders Cato and his cast clearly worked hard to find the point where comedy meets drama in this production, and the way it was accomplished was a stroke of genius. David Adkins as Greg and Jurian Hughes as Kate play their roles as husband and wives absolutely straight and seriously. But as in any suburban household, there are two languages spoken, that used by the adults to one another, and that which is used to communicate with babies, young children And pets. The tickle in the ribs comes when the petspeak is accidentally applied to the wife, as when David Adkins (Greg) absent-mindedly orders Jurian Huges (Kate) to “Sit!” several times during a tense scene.

Gurney has two versions of this play, and the Berkshire Theatre Group opted to go with the more mature one in which cats are vilified in rather unladylike terms. This works perfectly for Rachel Bay Jones, whose own shaggy hair and smiling personality blend perfectly into her role. Sylvia goes through several substantial changes in personality on stage, from a dog found in the park to a poodle-ish sexpot, and finally into a subdued pet following a visit to the vet in which she was fixed.

The genius of the play is that Sylvia concentrates just as much on what our actions and feelings as humans mean to dogs as they do to us. It’s revelation.

David Adkins is one of the BTG’s most credible actors, and his performance as the new owner of a dog who considers him to be a “god” is subtle, shaded and satisfying. As much as Rachel Bay Jones canine-style licks and tricks amuse, it is in the shaded reactions of both Adkins and Jurian Hughes that we find the humor.

There is another reason the audience becomes transfixed. As we watch,we do not have to imagine what this dog is feeling, we hear it first hand. So we get the straight poop from the pooch.

I have saved the best for last since there is one more person in the cast, the brilliant actor Walter Hudson. Hudson is one damn fine serious actor, though he has a comic side we rarely get to see. One of the conceits of the play are the three characters played by one actor: so Hudson becomes Tom, Phyllis and Leslie, in that order. High School and College productions often have these roles covered by three actors, the better to give everyone their moment on stage. If played by one actor, Gurney instructs: “I understand that some productions have cast a woman to play these different parts, but I don’t think a woman playing a man is half as funny as a man playing woman.”

So, for the first time in his career Hudson plays a woman (Phyllis) with the most subtle understatement I can remember. The more he tried to maintain her proper, formal demeaner, the louder the audience roared. Later, after the show the Countess Bedalia remarked that “she even got the part adjusting her underthings exactly right.” And trust me, the Countess knows “proper” when she sees it.

It was a sublimely funny portrayal. But there were two others. One as the eccentric fellow dog walker Tom who conflated dog behavior with human traits. Greg lapped the ideas up and tried to incorporate them into understanding his wife’s chilled reception to the new pet. This was a mistake as the marriage continued to erode. (There is a resolution later but you will find no spoilers here.)

In the second act Hudson returns again as the indeterminate Leslie, neither man nor woman but now a new age guru and counselor trying to help save the marriage. In Hudson’s hands, Gurney’s twist on this pompous poseur was perfectly delicious.

The single set for this production was uncluttered, a few black leather and chrome furniture pieces set against a stylized skyline. R.Michael Miller did a lot with a little. But here, less was more, nothing was missing. Its suggestion of a New York condo was skillfully achieved, and the enormous battery of over a hundred lighting instruments provided just the right light to illuminate the proceedings. Its design by Tyler Micoleau used few gels and special effects, and focused on both clarity and reality.

It may seem odd to admit that this Sylvia should reside on the shelf next to the great farceur Feydeau and the snap-witted Neil Simon. In seeing Sylvia for yourself you may find your appreciation of Pete Gurney widened. Not only is he one of the most important chroniclers of middle class life, but an absolute genius at rip roaring comedy as well.

At the moment Sylvia is absolutely the best play now on stage in the Berkshires. The BTG’s Tommy proved this company the masters of rock opera, while Sylvia proves they are also the Kings of Comedy. With Greg Keller’s provocative drama Dutch Masters opening next weekend, they could be headed for a triple crown.

Berkshire Theatre Group presents Sylvia by A.R. Gurney, Directed by Anders Cato, Sets by R. Michael Miller, Costumes by Olivera Gajic, Lights by Tyler Micoleau, Resident Composer/Sound Deign by Scott Killian. Cast: David Adkins (Greg), Walter Hudson (Tom, Phyllis, Leslie), Jurian Hughes (Kate), Rachel Bay Jones (Sylvia). July 13-30, At the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Fitzgerald Theatre, off Routes 102 and 7 in Stockbridge, MA.

3 thoughts on “Review: “Sylvia” is the doggone funniest play of the season

  1. Pingback: Nippertown!

  2. I saw Sylvia several years ago in Portland, Me. Have always remembered it and would like to see it again.i would love a schedule of where and when it is playing. Can you help me with this? I would very much appreciate it. Thank you!

    • You can check for your area using Google. I entered Gurney Sylvia November 2013 and came up with Goshen, Indiana for example. Don’t know of an easier way, like there’s no central calendar for shows on stage, though has news from all over the country. I cover the Berkshires for them. But they generally don’t list non-equity and community productions….

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