Lisa Jolley, who plays the irrepressible canine title character in the current Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy production of Sylvia, is bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and completely irresistible as she coolly sashays or frantically scampers around the Kennedy Theater stage with her long red curls flapping like a Labrador retriever/French poodle hybrid’s floppy ears. A consummate comedienne with a seemingly endless repertoire of funny facial expressions and hand gestures, Jolley quickly worms her way into the audience’s affections despite frequent torrents of four-letter words that make her sound like a stray dog with Tourette’s syndrome — and make this knee-slapping comedy an R-rated play.
But who knows how dirty a mutt, abandoned on the mean streets of New York, might talk about the sneaky, slinky, stinky feral cats that share her alley? The genius of playwright A.R. Gurney is that he eschews a dog costume or headgear for Sylvia, allowing the actress who plays Sylvia to perform in casual clothes; and he creates a distinctive vocabulary for his canine heroine — for example, she shouts “Hey, hey, hey” when she barks — that is completely convincing. The audience sees an actress with some dog-like tics and twitches but accepts her as a labradoodle who idolizes her rescuer, a stockbroker named Greg (Adam Twiss) who is increasingly unhappy at work because his boss wants him to quit trading stocks and start trying to hard-sell money-market accounts and foreign-currency funds to his clients.
Twiss, who is a fine comic actor, plays straight man to perfection to Jolley’s Sylvia. Their chemistry is great, and their characters’ attraction to each other is palpable. No wonder Greg’s wife, Kate (Cassandra Vallery), feels threatened when the love that her husband of 22 years displays for Sylvia exceeds the affection that he shows for her.
Vallery struts and frets and fumes magnificently. Kate is the nominal villain of the piece, but Vallery quickly captures audience sympathy for her increasingly exasperating plight. It’s not easy for a wife to play second fiddle to the family dog, but Vallery brings Kate’s temper to a boil (to mix metaphors) while never letting it boil over.
The fourth member of the cast, actor Robbie Gay, adds three side-splitting comic cameos as the male chauvinist philosopher/dog lover Tom, whom Greg meets in the park while the two of them are walking their dogs; as Kate’s prissy Vassar College classmate and best friend Phylliss, a recovering alcoholic whom Greg and Sylvia drive back to the bottle; and as the weirdly androgynous marriage counselor Leslie, whom Greg and Kate consult in a last-ditch effort to save their marriage. Leslie likes to explore “gender identification” issues, however discomforting and disconcerting that might be to his/her clients, and that gives Robbie Gay a meaty role that he turns into a feast of fun.
First-time director Alan Campbell, who earned a 1995 Tony Award® nomination for Best Actor in a Musical for creating the role of Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, proves to be the ideal chef for this tasty comic soufflé. Campbell brings out the flavor in every morsel of dialogue and adds some inspired monkey business that heightens the hilarity of the play.
First-nighters for the inaugural production of Season 5 of Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy were in for a real treat on Wednesday, and they expressed their delight with a loud and lengthy standing ovation. Hey, hey, hey, Sylvia is a hit!
Sylvia runs Wednesday-Sunday through June 28. See our theatre calendar for details.