'Sylvia': Dogged comedy that laps up laughs

A scene from "Sylvia" with (from left) Jessica Bedford, Greg Wood, Paul Felder, and Mary Elizabeth Scallen. Bedford plays the exuberant dog, Sylvia, who keeps widening the space - and chilling relations - between its master and mistress.
A scene from "Sylvia" with (from left) Jessica Bedford, Greg Wood, Paul Felder, and Mary Elizabeth Scallen. Bedford plays the exuberant dog, Sylvia, who keeps widening the space - and chilling relations - between its master and mistress.
Posted: September 13, 2011

Everyone, it seems, loves to watch A.R. Gurney's Sylvia, and everyone loves to produce it. Since 1995, the comedy about a boy and his dog, and his wife, and his midlife crisis as projected onto the dog, played by a cute young woman (Jessica Bedford) with shaggy blond curls, is a perennial on regional stages. This time, the lassie comes home to Ambler's Act II Playhouse, and why not? People love dogs, people love marriages weathering crisis, people love a happy ending.

I do not love Sylvia, though I do anthropomorphize and love dogs, and all the rest of it. Lines such as Sylvia's wide-eyed declaration, "Even when you hit me, I love you" always struck me as a lose-lose proposition. If they're truly the dog's/woman's sentiments, Sylvia - the play - is a misogynistic fantasy in fur; if they're husband Greg's (Greg Wood), it still might be, and identifying with him is a whole lot harder.

This isn't a Neil LaBute basher, after all, it's a friendly entertainment in which a couples therapist (here, Paul Felder, whose talent for subtlety is lost in a trio of increasingly silly supporting roles) advises Greg's wife, Kate (Mary Elizabeth Scallen), to get a divorce and a gun so she can shoot Sylvia "right between the eyes." Maybe that's not the best example.

In any case, director Harriet Power honors the material's pedigree and uses her fine cast to make it sit up and beg for sympathy. Bedford's Sylvia occupies every inch of the widening space between Greg and Kate. Bounding around the stage, all hair and wiggling rear, her exuberance tramples their chilly coexistence, filling their empty nest with the spontaneity and passion they seem to have lost when they moved from the suburbs to the city.

Wood's vulnerability and Scallen's restraint offer Bedford room to stretch out, and she does. Whether cursing a cat with the trip-wire fury of a gang girl, or quietly showing Kate who's really top dog in the house, Bedford keeps Sylvia interesting and youthful in her enthusiasms, but knowing rather than naive.

All this, plus Rosemarie McKelvey's costumes - Urban Outfitter-style boho-cute dresses, like a hot pink number with a black shrug and leggings - enhance Sylvia's spunky charm. I still feel like a traitor to both women and dogs either laughing along or misting up during its tearjerker of an ending. But I did both, and always do, and so, it seems, does everyone else.


Sylvia

Through Oct. 2 at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler. Tickets: $27-$33. Information: 215-654-0200 or www.Act2.org.


Read Wendy Rosenfield's reviews at www.philly.com/phillystage. Follow her on Twitter at #philastage.

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