Roll over and play charmed

November 13, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The Spotlighters Theatre has gone to the dogs.

And I can't imagine a greater compliment for its production of A.R. Gurney's "Sylvia," a canine-lover's dream of a play.

Gurney is known as a chronicler of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant lifestyle, but he also has a penchant for gimmicks. In his biggest hit, "Love Letters," the gimmick is two performers sitting side by side reading letters. In "The Fourth Wall," a character insists there's an audience beyond the fourth wall of her apartment, and, of course, there is.

In "Sylvia," the gimmick is that the title character is a dog played by an actress in human clothing. As a stray at the start of the play, Sylvia, a poodle-Labrador mix, is initially portrayed by the Spotlighters' Sharol Buck in torn jeans and an old sweater. After Greg, her new master (Mo Dutterer), has her groomed, she reappears in a little red dress and matching hat.

The reason the gimmick works is that "Sylvia" is actually a love story. If you doubt it, just see how quickly Greg's disgruntled wife, Kate (Conni Ross), begins treating Sylvia like the "other woman."

Buck, who valiantly stepped into the lead role at the last minute when the original actress was injured in a car accident, makes a totally endearing pooch. This doesn't mean she crawls around on all fours. Granted, she does a little of that, but mostly, she addresses her beloved Greg eye-to-eye, speaking perfectly comprehensible English.

I'm not sure, however, why Kate, who detests Sylvia, can also understand her from the start; it would make more sense if they were able to carry on a conversation only after reaching a meeting of the minds. That's one flaw in Gurney's script. Another that, once Sylvia and Greg's mutual affection is established, the first act becomes too long and repetitive.

Ah, but so many inspired moments compensate for these little glitches. There's the image of Greg and Sylvia heading out for a walk in identical outfits -- black jeans, red sweatshirts, black baseball caps. And then there's Sylvia announcing, " 'scuse me, I gotta check my messages," as she sniffs a nearby post.

If this sounds cute, it is. But it's underlined by a broader theme than just "man loves dog." Gurney is writing about how a long-married couple can grow apart. With the children finally off in college, Kate has taken up a career teaching in the inner city, and Ross plays her as a woman determined not to let anything stand in her way. Dutterer's Greg, however, has become so laid-back, his job is in jeopardy. (If Greg were a dog, he'd be an easy-going retriever; Kate would be a feisty terrier.)

Sylvia's presence makes Greg and Kate confront their differences and decide how they want to spend the rest of their lives. In one of the most amusing scenes, they consult an androgynous marriage counselor. The therapist, reminiscent of "Pat" on "Saturday Night Live," is played by Kurt M. Herring, who comically depicts all three of the play's minor characters. The cartoonish therapist uses androgyny as a tool of empathy and allows patients to select the counselor's gender.

I'm not sure how theatergoers who don't like dogs will respond to "Sylvia" (though at the very least, they can sympathize with Kate). An admitted dog fanatic myself, I put director James Markiewicz's production to the toughest test by bringing a friend who is a professional dog trainer. This woman can sit stone-faced through "An Affair to Remember," but one of the later scenes in "Sylvia" reduced her to tears. In other words, "Sylvia" won the blue ribbon.

'Sylvia'

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; through Nov. 30

Where: Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St.

Tickets: $10

Call: 410-752-1225

Pub Date: 11/13/97

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