By A.R. Gurney
Googling Sylvia by A. R. Gurney produces 75,500 sites, mostly reviews and forthcoming productions from Manhattan in 1995 to Hamburg in 2006. One concludes that the playwright’s comedic device of having a talking femme fatale dog, the Sylvia of the title, intrude into the middle-years marriage of Greg and Kate strikes a universal chord. While this final production for the year by Centenary (before its thirtieth birthday in 2007), is tight, well-paced and well-timed by John Boyce, it fails to exploit the full potential of the device. We observe the action with only occasional moments of genuine audience engagement.
Married for 20-plus years and with their children out of the family nest, Greg and Kate have moved to city-apartment living. Free of the kids, Kate is on the verge of a new career while Greg is suffering the career atrophy of having been too long in the same job. Enter Sylvia, a cross-bred pooch he finds apparently lost or abandoned while walking (on his employer’s time) in a park. She is one smooth, fast-talking, street-wise operator who succeeds in seducing his heart and his mind by seeming to provide the unconditional love and affection that appear to be missing in the marriage. This love triangle with a difference should generate a progressive dramatic tension and Seinfeld-like edgy humour culminating in Kate’s ‘her or me’ ultimatum when she obtains an overseas study grant with spousal, but no canine, support. Currently it doesn’t.
Rather than developing the tension and humour, the production as seen thrusts it at us from the outset. In essence the story is predictably over as soon as it begins, due mainly to Lia Davies’ highly energised but unengaging Sylvia. She gives us all she’s got in the opening scenes leaving the production locked on one level, and her fellow actors with little or no room to shape and develop their characters. That is unfortunate for David Bell’s mutt-smitten Greg and most unfortunate for Selina Kadell’s Kate, who for dog-huggers and lovers is seen as the ‘villain’ of the piece, through the writing anyway. Their performances are sound but stranded. Beware of working with children and animals, actors are warned. All the more so when the animal involved can talk, is appealing to the eye, and has many of the best lines and action in the play.
In his trio of roles as informed dog lover, alcoholic society dame and ambiguously-gendered shrink in need of a shrink, Mark Scott plays for farce when a measure of comic realism is called for. He might note Charlie Chaplin’s attributed comment that ‘the art of comedy is stepping over the banana skin into an open manhole’.
Given that the season runs until December 9, there is time to rebalance the production, set it on a more even keel and have it ride rather than plough the rising swell of middle-aged uncertainty that the play explores.
Directed by John Boyce
Playing until December 9: Fri & Sat at 8pm; Sun at 6.00pm
Duration : 2 hour 10 mins with 20min. interval