What is it with middle-aged men on stage who fall in love with female animals named Sylvia?
Both inspired by the Shakespeare excerpt “Who is Sylvia?” from “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” both A.R. Gurney’s “Sylvia,” and Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” explore the attraction and limits of the bond between man and beast. By 2019, both plays had been done in the Quad Cities, and a new Playcrafters version of the Gurney is a terrific, spot-on reprise.
Albee’s “Sylvia” (written in 2000, premiered on Broadway in ’02) was given a creepy, unforgettable, pitch-perfect production by the old QC Theatre Workshop in fall 2019. It’s the darker, more tragic of the two, though both playwrights focus on upper-middle-class couples, whose husbands have a wandering eye and animal instinct. Albee’s goat Sylvia is much discussed, but unseen for close to the entirety of the 95-minute, intermission-less piece.
In the much lighter (but still tense at times) “Sylvia” (penned in 1995, premiering on Broadway in 2015, two acts and two hours), the title dog is very much seen and well-spoken, and she unabashedly loves her owner, Greg, calling him a god early on.
After 22 years of child-raising in the suburbs, Greg (Jeremy Mahr) and Kate (Carla Stevens) have moved to Manhattan (the upscale living room set at Playcrafters includes three panels of a stunning city skyline). His career as a financial trader is winding down, while Kate’s career as an English teacher is opening up to new opportunities.
One day, Greg brings home a stray dog he found in the park – or, more accurately, one that found him – bearing only the name “Sylvia” on her tag. It is puppy love at first sight between a searching man and childlike dog, but Kate is not on board. She and Sylvia, a street-smart mix of Lab and poodle, battle for Greg’s affection in this comedic, literate and touching show about the relationship humans have with our pets.
Directed by Kathy Graham, the wonderful four-person cast is supported by a multi-talented 24-person crew.
A dream role for any young actress, Adrienne Jane Evans clearly has a ball as the worshipful pooch. She starts wearing shorts and knee-pads, as she occasionally gets on all fours, but Evans spends much of the show upright (like a normal person) and exudes tremendous energy, jumping, flopping around, sometimes playing fetch, and always catching Greg. She ends the play in a black dress, natch.
Dog owners obviously get extremely close with their pets, and “Sylvia” is not all that far-fetched in tracing that relationship to the natural conclusion — what would it sound like if we could actually talk with our canine compatriots? And don’t forget the soulful, limpid eyes of our dogs.
Evans is irresistibly cute, perky and playful and it’s easy to see why Mahr as Greg would become quickly enamored with her. He longs for connection and affection, something he seems to not get from his wife, as she puts her career first (teaching Shakespeare to inner-city junior-high kids), and is dead set against having a dog.
Mahr is tremendously relatable and heartfelt in the role — we understand his frustration in his marriage, in his job, in his life, and the primal need to simply enjoy every day. As he says late in the play, everyone should own a dog; the world would be a better place, and we change our perspective seeing life through the eyes of our dogs.
Sylvia’s aim in life is to please and she hugs everyone she meets. One of many of the play’s highlights is seeing Evans play the dog in heat, looking to mate with a male in the park. Later, Greg claims another owner’s dog (Bowser) raped Sylvia, and he has her neutered. Evans poignantly captures the pain of that post-procedure.
Stevens is solid and strong as the driven, tough Kate, and Thayne Lamb is great in three very different roles — Bowser’s owner, Tom; Kate’s sympathetic friend, Phyllis; and the couple’s counselor, the gender-ambiguous Leslie.
“Sylvia” is not only entertaining and very well-written, it’s a thought-provoking look at careers, marriage, and the joys and perils of pets. It runs at Playcrafters Barn Theatre at 4950 35th Ave., Moline, through Oct. 9.
Performances will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and a 3 p.m. matinee on Sunday. Tickets ($15 and $13 for the military and seniors), available HERE or by calling 309-762-0330.