Doggone Good!

Somerset Valley Players finds ‘Sylvia.’

By: Stuart Duncan
   A.R. Gurney came late to playwriting. In fact he had a fine career in academia up to about the age of 50 when one of his early plays, The Dining Room, became such a success he could turn full-time to writing. He quit his position as a professor at M.I.T.
   Many other plays followed, the most popular and most successful being Love Letters, which attracted stars from both stage and film to act in it across the United States. Among his prolific output was a little fantasy named Sylvia. His early plays had been mostly set in or near Buffalo, N.Y., his hometown, and concerned growing up in a well-to-do but dysfunctional family. Sylvia, however, was set in Manhattan and had as its central character a female dog named Sylvia. One afternoon in Central Park, she just attached herself to Greg, a middle-aged man with apparent business problems.
   Greg takes Sylvia home to the apartment he and his wife, Kate, live in and sure enough, that family turns dysfunctional as well. Kate has a hugely successful career going in middle school English and she doesn’t appreciate the care and concern she now has to share with a mutt. There are the usual arguments about a dog on the sofa and chairs, but this is an argument Kate is bound to lose. The situation rapidly proceeds to family consultations with a psychologist and beyond.
   The play has had a terrific following with community theater outfits across the country and its current local stopping site is Somerset Valley Playhouse. Director Jak Prince has a wonderful cast of four and tight direction for a production that is just plain fun.
   Gurney has a delightful way with dialogue and this play has some of his best. Kate tells Sylvia: "You are nothing more than a male menopausal moment." Kate is played by Heather Giarrusso, who catches all of the playwright’s humor plus the angst. Dawn Calvert is Sylvia, who attributes her prowess in the role to the series of schnauzers in her life who have given her acting tips. Tom Johnston plays Greg and resists the urge to overplay the dialogue and thereby finds a real streak of humanity in the part. Three other characters: Tom (another dog owner who shows up in the park with his horny lab, Bowser), Phyllis (a socialite school chum of Kate’s from college) and Leslie (the psychologist of indifferent gender who takes on the challenge of sorting it all out) are all played by Teresa Von den Steinen. The roles are usually handled by a male; it’s much funnier this way.
   And it is Von den Steinen who gets to deliver Gurney’s other brilliant observation: "I think all men should be Republicans; it’s good for their prostates."
   This is really a little gem of a show, perhaps with a warning that Sylvia occasionally lapses into some out-of-school talk when faced with a stray cat. Go — laugh. And if you want to worry about the relationship of men and pets, go ahead. Incidentally, if you ever wondered what the "A.R." stood for, it’s Albert Ramsdell.
Sylvia continues at Somerset Valley Playhouse, 689 Amwell Road, Hillsborough, through Aug. 5. Performances: Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m. Tickets cost $14, $12 seniors; (908) 369-7469;