Gurney places a dog at the center of a typically listless marriage and lets the chips fall where they may. Briskly directing the American Heartland Theatre's production, Mark Ciglar shares Gurney's confidence in making the dog a dog as well as a metaphor for those things that give us a yank when ennui keeps us on our self-administered leashes.
Greg (James Wright) is in a career funk and has been taking extended afternoon breaks in Central Park. His wife, Kate (Donna Thomason), is back in the workforce with gusto; she got the last of the kids off to college, snared a graduate degree and is hungry for the affirmation that eluded her on the mommy track. With the addition of Sylvia (Joanna K. Cole), a stray mutt who spots Greg as a needy rescuer, the marriage vows get tested like never before. There's honor and obedience, and then there's obedience school.
Sylvia is clearly a stand-in for what Greg, in his volatile state of mind, might have otherwise picked up -- an extra few Johnnie Walker Blacks a day, Internet porn or the new office temp. Though Sylvia's just a dog (a phrase dog people never use), Kate feels threatened -- and Thomason plays her with potent yet comic shades of jealousy and exasperation. As wives sometimes do with their husbands, Kate indulges Greg, giving Sylvia a reprieve.
The play's gimmick is that Sylvia is portrayed by a nubile young woman (Sarah Jessica Parker originated the role in New York in 1996), with only minor adjustments to her wardrobe. Paul Hough's costume design gives her cargo shorts and knee pads (she's like a skater chick) or, after a trip to the groomer, a summer dress that wouldn't be out of place in the Hamptons. But Sylvia's no bimbo; she knows where the power lies in this Manhattan apartment, and it isn't in Kate's Palm Pilot. Cole delightfully embodies Sylvia's unconditional love for Greg and her annoyance with Kate while still, without hesitation, sniffing at visitors' crotches.
The opening-night audience effortlessly warmed up to Brad Malow, who plays three roles: Tom, a fellow canine owner Greg meets at a dog run; Phyllis, an Upper East Side doyenne who went to Vassar with Kate; and a sexually ambiguous therapist named Leslie. Malow is a talented actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to Saturday Night Live's Chris Kattan and has that performer's chameleonic abilities. (In his curtain call, he wore pieces of all three characters' clothes.)
Keith Brumley's set is symmetrical and sparse, with just the right number of tasteful furnishings to represent the couple's oxygen-deprived relationship. Shane Rowse's lighting makes the most of the play's finest scene, in which Kate, Greg and Sylvia share choruses of Cole Porter's lovely "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye." It starts as a joke about how dogs grieve for their owners even when they're only out of sight for two minutes but becomes a sublime statement about all of the losses we carry like curses.
In other news from New York, Theater League president Mark Edelman, spotted at Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, let on that a Best Musical Tony Award for Thoroughly Modern Millie would cinch its touring possibilities. Even if it loses to Urinetown, the show is a delightful, zesty tale of a Salina, Kansas, girl's adventures in flapper-era New York City. Among its greatest assets are Marc Kudish (who starred last summer in Starlight's Prince and the Pauper) and Sutton Foster, who makes good on the old movie-musical cliché about a performer who moves from understudy status to that of a new Broadway star.