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Ease of staging has helped to make Love Letters A.R. Gurney’s most-often produced play, but the core truths at the heart of the patently absurd Sylvia have made this doggie comedy his most beloved. In the midst of a mid-life crisis, Greg brings home a mongrel poodle that he finds in Central Park, and the love that wells up in him for the stray drives him slightly insane – while his wife Kate’s hatred of the pooch drives her to the same extreme. The most striking device in Gurney’s script, turning over the role of Sylvia to a rambunctious actress, helps the playwright to carry on some serious business hilariously. Gurney explores the mysterious primal bond between a man and his dog as they grow to appreciate and worship one another. Along the way, Gurney also probes the frictions that arise with the pursuit of happiness within the confines of marriage, and there are a couple of fascinating exhibits of jealousy: from Kate when she sees Sylvia alienating her husband’s affections, and from Greg the first time Sylvia goes into heat. With a fine cast directed by Tom Hollis at Pease Auditorium, Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) Theatre’s production delivers the truths as sharply as the laughs.
The whole package is very pleasing, beginning with perhaps the best set design James Duke has ever conceived for Pease. Dividing the panoramic stage into three symmetrical sections and elevating them all yielded a more comfortable visibility than I ever remember experiencing at Pease. Although it isn’t nearly as deep as it is wide, the auditorium can make it difficult to see or hear. Not this time. Duke’s lighting design complements his stylized scenery, a mash of art deco and cartoon, and Hollis achieves a similar mixture with his casting. Dennis Delamar and Polly Adkins are the most convincing midlife couple I’ve seen anywhere as Greg and Kate, including the original off-Broadway production. Counterbalancing these empty-nesters is the sass of Shawna Pledger in a sensational Charlotte debut that gets no small boost from the canine costume designs of Jamey Varnadore. Matt Kenyon makes the other zany contributions in three screwball cameos: a vulgar but erudite dog owner, a light-hearted but high-strung old friend of Kate’s, and a similarly wired psychotherapist of a yet-to-be-determined gender.
Yes, the Greg-and-Kate marriage threatens to go off the rails, and there are numerous awkward moments, bestial outbreaks, and animal exuberances to take us there. Pledger excels at Sylvia’s adoration and vanity more than at her ferocity and coquettishness, but it’s unmistakably a treasurable portrait distinguished by her uninhibited physicality. Delamar has probably played too many suave urbane leads to be truly in his element as the bumbling bewildered Greg, so the chemistry between man and dog satisfies more deeply than the rapport between man and wife. But there is some chemistry here, a statement I couldn’t make about a couple of Sylvia efforts I’ve witnessed before. That’s because Adkins has perfectly pitched Kate’s displeasure, resisting the urge to turn termagant and channeling her animus into anxiety – she is obsessed with Sylvia in a hilarious way I’ve never seen before. It’s brilliant, although the boring costumes Varnadore designs for Kate don’t do Adkins any favors.
A gifted comedian, Kenyon retains his ability to surprise. Playing Tom with the obligatory New Yawk accent, Kenyon discards his usual throaty treble and dips down into his diaphragm to produce a baritone and a volume level that I’ve never heard from him before. The portrait of Leslie, the androgynous psychiatrist, is also savory, but Hollis and his cast need to rethink the flow and the point of that pivotal scene. Likewise, when Kenyon bustles into Kate’s living room and is attacked by Sylvia, Hollis could take the Pledger-Kenyon altercation even further than he does. It’s not that we’re glossing over detail. You’ll notice that when Greg walks Sylvia to the park, Hollis takes care that the leash gets twisted around Greg in a manner that will be quite familiar to dog owners. But Delamar isn’t taking us that extra distance to show us the comedy of a novice dog owner coping with this predicament.
So CPCC’s production has its flaws, but overall it’s on par with the best versions of Sylvia I’ve seen before (Off-Broadway and by the defunct Off-Tryon Theatre Company) – and markedly better than the wrongheaded 1997 production by Charlotte Rep. CPCC does stand for Central Piedmont Community College, but there is nothing about this Sylvia that deserves the stigma of student work. Nor in its artistry and professionalism should theatergoers tamp down their expectations to the level of run-of-the-mill community theater. This Sylvia is a doggie treat to be compared with any version you’ll see anywhere.
Sylvia runs through Sunday, November 4. For more information on this production, please view the sidebar.