For 'Sylvia,' the dog days are here

The Rep proves that, even in Seattle, a dog play can flop if the acting isn't there.

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Alban Dennis and Linda K. Morris.

The Rep proves that, even in Seattle, a dog play can flop if the acting isn't there.

A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia was a huge hit on Broadway when it opened in 1995 and has continued to delight critics and audiences around the country. The 1996 production at the Seattle Rep was a resounding success and remains one of the most requested plays that the Rep has ever performed.

Given this history, it seems fitting that the Rep would present the play this year as the company prepares for its 50th anniversary season in 2012-13. A hit such as Sylvia reminds the Rep — and our community as a whole — of the central role this troupe has had in making Seattle such a vibrant theater town.

With a dog as the main character, it’s no surprise Sylvia has delighted audiences locally and nationally. We are a dog-loving nation. Even those of us who don't currently have a dog in our lives probably have at some point. Seattle in particular is a haven for dog lovers, as any visitor to Greenlake, Alki, or our numerous dog parks can attest.

In Sylvia, Greg, an upper-middle class Manhattan executive, is frustrated with his job and his life and happens upon a stray dog named Sylvia according to her dog tag. It’s love at first sight for both of them and Greg decides to take Sylvia home. They enter Greg’s Upper Eastside flat and Sylvia does what all dogs would do under the circumstances – runs around exploring the apartment, jumps on the sofa, stares adoringly at her new owner, and — in the verbal interplay that Gurney has invented for their interactions — tells Greg how much she loves him.

When Greg’s wife Kate comes home from work, she’s unpleasantly surprised by the new canine in their midst. With kids off to college, the couple has recently moved into the city from the suburbs. Kate is looking forward to a dog-free phase of her life. All of Sylvia’s efforts to win Kate over fail, and the dog becomes such a bone of contention in the marriage that Greg thinks of leaving — with Sylvia of course.

Eventually all ends well, but not before Greg becomes more and more attached to Sylvia, quits his job and refuses to move to England with Kate because they can’t take Sylvia (due to England’s quarantine law). It’s only thanks to a wacky shrink that Greg begins to realize his relationship with Sylvia is not normal. By this time Kate is warming up to the dog, and eventually the three live happily ever after for the 11 remaining years of Sylvia’s life.
Such an implausible story requires actors of the first order to carry it off. The acting of the original cast, which featured Sarah Jessica Parker as Sylvia, Charles Kimbrough as Greg, and Blythe Danner as Kate apparently made the improbable-sounding situation emotionally true.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the current Rep cast. Although Linda K. Morris does a fine physical impersonation of a Labradoodle with her curly red hair and floppy movements, her persona is too strong to make her convincing as the abandoned, love-starved Sylvia. When she spews a string of four letter words at a cat she encounters on the street, Morris’ vitriol feels more like an assault on the audience than the embodiment of the dog’s age-old antipathy toward cats. Director R. Hamilton Wright has wisely kept Morris upright for most of the time, but while this avoids sending her into caricature, it reinforces the impression that she, not Greg, is the dominant one in their relationship.

Neither Alban Dennis as Greg, nor Mari Nelson as Kate provides the character development necessary to make the play more than an extended one-note joke. Although they both go through the motions of moving from marital solidity to uncertainty to joyful resolution, the tenor of their characters remains the same throughout. Dennis seems particularly disengaged emotionally. If he ever cracked a smile at Sylvia’s antics, it wasn’t apparent to me. Dennis says the words “I love you” to Sylvia — and to Kate — but without much feeling. Even at the end, when harmony reigns among the threesome and Greg has found success in a new job, Dennis remains his same stony-faced self.

Despite the ups and downs in her marriage, Mari Nelson’s Kate lacks the edginess that such a situation would naturally evoke. Whether sparring with Greg, yelling at Sylvia to get off the couch, complaining to her friend or confiding in her shrink, Nelson is remarkably even-tempered. Even when she shrieks, Nelson externalizes the emotion, rather than making us feel her pain.

The one standout in the cast is Darragh Kennan, who steals every scene he’s in. As Greg’s philosophy-spouting dog-park buddy, Kate’s snooty Upper East Side friend, or Kate and Greg’s gender-bending therapist, Kennan offers a tour de force performance and proves he’s as effective at over-the-top comedy as at Shakespearean drama.

If you go: Sylvia, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, through December 11. Tickets $15-74 and are available at the box office, by phone 206-443-2222 or toll-free at 877-900-9285, or online at


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