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Puppy Love

A.R. Gurney’s doggone comedy Sylvia is good entertainment, after all.

by Chris Davis

f you give Sylvia a bad review, then you don’t know what you are talking about,” she said, the plumes of her hat bobbing fiercely from the sharp nod that accompanied the challenge. Coming from Wanda Wilson, proprietress of the P&H Cafe and patron saint of Memphis theatre, these were strong words. What if I didn’t like it? Would I be banned from the Midtown tavern that has been like a second home for a dozen years? Fondly recalling the blackouts of my youth, the worry set in. I hadn’t experienced pressure like this since A.R. Gurney’s damnable shaggy dog story made its Memphis debut at Circuit Playhouse a year or so ago. I couldn’t leave my house back then without random unsolicited advisements to the effect of, “You need to see Sylvia; it’s very funny.” I snapped and started screaming things like, “A.R. Gurney is the John Cheever for a Prozac nation,” and “He has the soul of an accountant.” And the popular “I hate him, I hate him, I hate him, and I won’t do it, I won’t see Sylvia.” And, by golly, I didn’t see it. My friends expressed concern and shared looks that clearly said, “Poor man, he doesn’t know what he is talking about.”

Sylvia is the story of two New York empty-nesters and (of course) Sylvia, the stray dog that comes between them. It’s another Gurney sitcom, featuring a variety of WASPy dilemmas served on a bed of WASPy relationships, dusted with WASPy wit, and smothered in sentimentality. Scary? Very. Awful? By no means. Playhouse on the Square’s revival of Sylvia, under the direction of Ann Marie Hall, is a real Scooby snack. It’s a sweet that would rot your teeth in no time given a steady diet of the stuff. Delicious? Yes. Nutritious? Probably not, but it tastes so good, who cares?

Drop-dead pretty, and digging for bones, Shannon Convery’s performance as the home-wrecking mutt might provide a bit of insight for theologians wrestling with the concept of a being both fully human, and fully divine. One hundred percent human and completely canine, Convery captures that elusive, almost magical quality, exclusive to dogs, that allows even the most mentally gifted animal lover to experience the bliss of a Homer Simpson moment. “Look,” we say, staring dumbly at our pets, “She thinks she’s people.” If all performances had this degree of specificity and commitment there would be no need for critics – it would all indeed be good. Amazingly, Convery never upstages the other actors. Maybe it isn’t entirely true what they say about acting with animals and children.

Understatement is overrated. It is a compliment often applied where an excuse would have been more appropriate. As a man in the throes of a mid-life crisis, Randy Hartzog takes the less-is-more approach and comes out on top. He is a man who loves his dog (and what’s wrong with that?) and is confused by an increasingly hermetic world that has disease-a-fied even the mildest imitation of passion. As the doggie-dissenting wife and culturally biased teacher, Ann Marie Hall (directing herself, no less) is close to perfect. She is a crusader who wants to take Shakespeare to the parts of town where rap reigns supreme. Certain aspects of rap music bear a vague resemblance to the insult-swapping, language-surfing drama of the Elizabethan stage (listen to the Beastie Boys while reading Ben Johnson), but her mission betrays the same cultural conceits that gave us such hits as Manifest Destiny. As the wife, Hall’s high­falootin’ ultra-whiteness could combine with her articulate intolerance of the loveable mutt to create a new Cruella. Not here. Befuddled by good intentions, Hall’s character is every bit as confused as her husband. They become two clowns in search of a fool, and Sylvia has shown up to teach them a trick or two.

A triple threat, Kevin Jones takes on the roles of a macho dog enthusiast, a rich-bitch falling off the 12th step, and an androgynous analyst. With total commitment, Jones delivers three very funny characters and a performance that deserves much more ink than I have left to spill.

Having at last experienced “Gurney’s damnable shaggy dog story,” I am ready to concede that, while I prefer a meatier dish, there is a lot to be said for good entertainment. To all my friends whom I treated like idiots for liking Sylvia the last time around, I am sorry. Wanda, ice down the beers, I’ll see you after the show.

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