Sylvia is A.R. Gurney’s tale of an adorable mutt who finds herself a new master in a Manhattan park and a new home in a New York City brownstone.  This comic tribute to Man’s Best Friend has become a regional audience favorite since its first staging in 1995 with Sarah Jessica Parker as Sylvia, and its latest incarnation at Hermosa Beach Playhouse is one of the Playhouse’s best.

The course of true love never did run smooth, and the fly in Sylvia’s ointment is new owner Greg’s wife Kate.  Their children having left the family nest, Kate and Greg have moved to Manhattan, and a new pet is exactly what Kate doesn’t want, especially now that she has resumed her teaching career in an inner city high school.

Greg, on the other hand, finds that Sylvia fills a gap in his life.  Is he having a midlife crisis, or is it just that having a pet who thinks of him as God gives his life new meaning? ‘You’re prejudiced against dogs,” Greg tells Kate. No, she replies. It’s just that “I want my freedom. I want freedom from dogs!”

Still, in the interest of marital harmony, Kate grudgingly agrees to let Sylvia stay for a few days, on condition that “She is yours. I won’t feed her. I won’t walk her.”

No problem, says Greg, and one day, while walking Sylvia in the park, he meets another dog owner, Tom, who tells him, “Give a dog a woman’s name, you begin to think of her as a woman.” Though Tom named his dog Bowser (so that there would be no possibility of confusing his mutt for a human being), he still needs to “remind myself to kiss my wife before I say hello to Bowser.”

The more Greg and Sylvia bond, the more frustrated Kate becomes by the whole situation. She complains to Phyllis, an old Vassar classmate, that Sylvia “wants to sleep in our bed.” Greg has even found a restaurant that will serve both man and dog.  “I never thought I could hate anyone except Nixon” confesses Kate, but then came Sylvia.

Greg: She lightens my life.
Kate: She darkens mine.

Is Greg going through a “male menopausal moment?” Is there any possibility that husband, wife, and pet can find a way to live in harmony? Will Kate divorce Greg, on the grounds of adultery?  Will she sue Sylvia for alienation of affections?

The answers to these and other questions can be found in Sylvia, the title role of which is sensationally acted here by Kimberly Patterson, continuing her winning string of Hermosa Beach Playhouse performances with one that captures audience hearts from her first entrance. Watching Patterson wag her perky behind, sniff at strangers, bark “Hey! Hey! Hey!”, scratch at fleas, or experience the thrill of being in heat (“I just wanna hump!”) is a non-stop delight, and when Sylvia pleads with her master not to send her off to some family in the burbs, there’s likely not to be a dry eye in the house. 

Don Fowler’s Greg follows a pair of pitch-perfect performances at the Playhouse with yet another fine one. Last year’s The Nerd earned Fowler mention on StageSceneLA’s Best Of 2007-8 lists for his Outstanding Achievement By A Featured Actor In A Comedy, and his starring role in the recent Blithe Spirit was every bit as good.  Here he plays “straight man” to Patterson’s Sylvia, and whether basking in the glow of Sylvia’s unconditional love or sparring with wife Kate over his new pet or confessing to Kate his need to “feel more connected to life…to living,” Fowler is absolutely convincing. 

Suzanne Dean has the tough role of Kate, the meanie who wants Sylvia out of her house and life (she calls Sylvia Saliva…deliberately), but Dean’s three-dimensional work persuades us that she’s not a dog-hater, but simply someone who loves her husband and is defending her marriage and her new “adult” life in the city.

Making his Hermosa Beach Playhouse debut is Michael Mullen, whose dramatic work in last Fall’s Porcelain and comic turns in December’s gay A Christmas Carol and now here in Sylvia are quickly making him L.A. theater’s “multiple role master.” Appearing first as Bowser’s macho owner, Mullen then dons a skirt, blouse, and Charlie’s Angels wig (a cross between Farrah’s and Jaclyn’s) and turns into Kate’s college chum Phyllis.  Finally, Mullen appears to androgynous perfection as Kate’s psychiatrist Leslie, who informs Kate, “I let my patients select my gender.”

Stephanie A. Coltrin proves again, as she did with Blithe Spirit and Come Back To The Five & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, that she is as confident directing straight plays as she is helming musicals (her CLOSBC Miss Saigon just won the Ovation Award for Best Musical). Whether staging physical comedy or the poignant moments between Sylvia and Greg, Coltrin does sensational work here once again.

Christopher Beyries’ scenic and lighting design complement each other to allow for quick switching between various Manhattan locales—Greg and Kate’s flat, a park, a therapist’s office, etc.  Erik Bleuer’s sound design features lots of barking, as well it should.  Christa M. Armendariz has cleverly and creatively costumed Sylvia, first in jeans and patches, then (following her shampoo and styling) in a black miniskirt with white fur kneepads and leg warmers, and later, as Sylvia explores her womanhood, in a slinky black cocktail dress and high heels.  She also creates three very distinctive outfits for Mullen’s characters—macho man garb for Tom, a smart woman’s dress for Phyllis, and a suitably gender-neutral pantsuit for the androgynous Leslie. 

Once again with Sylvia, the Hermosa Beach Playhouse proves itself the finest non-Equity large theater in town.  Even diehard cat lovers will likely find themselves falling under Sylvia’s spell.

Advisory: Sylvia is rated PG-13 for it frequent use of the “F” word and other “adult” language.  

Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 170 Pier Avenue, Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach.

–Steven Stanley
January 20, 2009
                                                                   Photos: Alysa Brennan

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