Broad 'Saint Sylvia' says too much about stardom Review: Ambitious Spotlighters' Theatre performs a near-miss in its reach for parody of the culture of celebrity.

July 24, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Nan Kirchhoff's "Saint Sylvia" is a play about the seductive and fickle nature of celebrity. It even includes clips from a television show whose name, "Celebrities Today," seems to imply, "Has-Beens Tomorrow."

The Spotlighters' first entry in this year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival, "Saint Sylvia" features an able cast -- particularly relative newcomer Nancy Murray, whose depiction of the perpetually perky hostess of "Celebrities Today" would be right at home on tabloid TV.

But credible as Murray and her talk show may be, the play as a whole is overstated.

The play's title refers to Sylvia Hendrix, a two-faced former starlet, played by Barbara Blair with a fitting blend of charm and nastiness. A second-generation actress, Sylvia may have some small talent as a Thespian, but her major talent is in self-promotion.

In the wake of her daughter's suicide, Sylvia has pulled herself out of obscurity by capitalizing on the seemingly selfless good works she has done for families of suicide victims.

Most of the action concerns an interview that "Celebrities Today" has scheduled with Sylvia and her sculptor husband, Jonathan. Although Sylvia sings her husband's praises in public, in private she is verbally abusive to Jonathan, played by Joe Thompson as a trusting, well-meaning lug, whose commitment to this unhealthy marriage has turned him into an agoraphobic hypochondriac.

Jonathan's sister, Jo, however, is anything but trusting when it comes to Sylvia. Suspicious Jo, portrayed with freshness and verve by Gwyn Hervochon, has her own agenda -- she's openly gay and has artistic aspirations herself. But her love and concern for her brother are the qualities Hervochon conveys most strongly.

Largely because Jo's noble qualities ring so true -- especially compared to Sylvia and Jonathan's exaggerated personalities -- her abrupt about-face at the end feels unjustified.

Sylvia's lust for fame is, in fact, so exaggerated that she conveys the dangers of celebrity very well on her own, thank you. Mean and manipulative to the core, she's a one-woman cautionary tale. Playwright Kirchhoff didn't need to make Jo undergo a complete change of character to get the play's point across.

I suspect Kirchhoff intended "Saint Sylvia" as a satire -- attacking not only celebrity, but also distorted modern values. But despite some of the broad characterizations, as directed by Parvin Farhoody, the play's tone never takes full comic flight.

Farhoody, who also designed the set, augments the production with four video monitors.

At the beginning and end of the play these monitors show segments of "Celebrities Today," and the interview with Sylvia is simultaneously broadcast during the scene in which it is being taped.

On opening night, this technology presented some strain for the modest, but ambitious, Spotlighters.

But the strain on credibility -- combined with the uncertain tone -- is a much more serious glitch for "Saint Sylvia," a play that, despite an interesting theme, ultimately seems truer to the tabloids than to itself.

'Saint Sylvia'

Where: Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Through Aug. 3

Tickets: $10

Call: (410) 752-1225

Pub Date: 7/24/96

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