Thu, Jun 25, 2015 - Page 12 News List

More than a dog’s life

With a talented cast, ‘Sylvia,’ a play about a man, his wife and an anthropomorphic dog, dazzles and entertains

By Jerome Keating  /  Contributing reporter

Maurice Harrington, left, and Tiffany Tsai star as Greg and Sylvia in The LAB Space’s production of Sylvia.

Photo Courtesy of Fabian Hamacher

Does that old adage “A dog is man’s best friend” hold true, if said dog threatens the man’s marriage of 22 years? Come judge for yourself as director Brook Hall and The LAB Space present their third play of the season, AR Gurney’s delightful, entertaining and thought-provoking comedy Sylvia.

The play opens as Greg (Maurice Harrington) returns home with a stray, street-smart dog Sylvia (Tiffany Tsai, 蔡天芸) that he found (or she found him?) in the park. Greg is facing a mid-life crisis. He is at odds with his boss; his career is going nowhere and his marriage to Kate (Sarah Brooks) seems mired in the humdrum period that often follows empty-nest syndrome. He definitely needs someone to talk to and show him affection.

Kate, on the other hand, is ready to enjoy her empty-nest freedom. Now she can finally focus on her career as an English teacher. A dog in the house? No, thank you. Her dog-raising days ended when the kids left home. But Greg pleads, and she agrees to “try it for a few days” and the play is off and running.

With wit and humor, Gurney quickly takes the audience on a romp full of hijinks, fantasy and enlightenment as we examine the imagined anthropomorphic relationships and feelings with which we humans credit and endow our pets.

STELLAR CAST

Hall has chosen his cast well. Both Harrington and Brooks rise to the challenging task of playing a caring couple caught in a potentially boring situation without boring the audience. Greg, like a frustrated Walter Mitty alternately rhapsodizes on the “call of the wild” and not letting anything come between a “man and his dog” while at the same time also admitting he is “sick.”

Kate, as the kind wife who has never really hated anyone (except maybe Nixon) now finds she must, of all things, square off against a dog, one she appropriately calls Saliva. With a teacher’s background, she portrays life as a heroic drama and ends several scenes with quotes from Shakespeare.

Strong backup comes from the versatile fourth member of the ensemble, John Brownlie, who takes on multiple roles. First he is Tom, the philosophical owner of Bowser (dogs should never have female names) who advises Greg to have Sylvia spayed. Next he is Phyllis, Kate’s recovering alcoholic friend who quickly goes from water to scotch when pursued by the skirt-sniffing Sylvia. And finally Brownlie plays transgender Leslie, the shrink who needs a shrink. After several double-entendre dialogues with Greg who keeps Leslie guessing as to whether he is talking about his wife or Sylvia, Leslie advises Kate to get a gun and “shoot Sylvia right between the eyes.”

DOG WITH HUMAN QUALITIES

But what about Sylvia? Gurney takes Sylvia far beyond traditional dog roles like Old Yeller, Lassie and even Snoopy. Is she just a dog, or more? Is Greg the real one in need who credits her with too much feeling?

When Gurney finished this play in 1995, shocked feminist critics said no woman would ever play the role of a dog. How wrong they were, or how times have changed. This is a plumb role; one that allows an actress a wide range of emotions and Tsai plays it with full abandon. Seductive, playful, hyperactive, effervescent, eager to investigate and eager to please — all those things we love and sometimes are bothered by in a dog.

With costume changes that accent these many sides, Tsai acts oblivious to everything outside a dog’s moods — even the audience. She relishes her emotions, whether she is ragging on cats, being in heat or loving Greg even after she is spayed. Sarah Jessica Parker, who played the original starring role of Sylvia, went on to Sex and the City. And Tsai? Whatever is ahead, she will definitely be a part of Taiwan theater.

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